In back-to-school speech, Obama implores students to 'dream big'

President Obama shakes students' hands after delivering remarks at the elite Julia R. Masterman public school in Philadelphia.
President Obama shakes students' hands after delivering remarks at the elite Julia R. Masterman public school in Philadelphia. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2010

PHILADELPHIA - With an acknowledgment that he had slacked off in school himself on occasion, President Obama exhorted the nation's students Tuesday to show "discipline and drive" to help their country compete in the global economy.

Obama delivered his second annual back-to-school speech from an elite, selective public school in this city that contrasts sharply with the turnaround-success stories his administration is seeking to promote.

The address, described as a nonpolitical event, was shown on the White House Web site and on C-SPAN. The president urged students at Philadelphia's Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School, as well as his national audience, to study and stay out of trouble.

"That kind of discipline and drive - that kind of hard work - is absolutely essential for success," Obama said.

He added: "I wasn't always the best student when I was younger; I made my share of mistakes. . . . I was kind of a goof-off." He recalled that his mother prodded him to buckle down.

"My attitude was what I imagine every teenager's attitude is when your parents have a conversation with you like that. I was like, 'I don't need to hear all this.' " Obama said his mother told him he could get into any college if he tried. "She gave me a hard look and she said, 'Remember what that's like? Effort?' "

The president said he took the advice to heart. He went on to earn an undergraduate degree from Columbia and a law degree from Harvard.

Masterman students probably have already heard and heeded such advice. The school, which has about 1,200 students in grades 5 through 12, draws the city's academic cream through competitive admissions. With nearly all of its graduates headed to four-year colleges and most of its upper-grade students taking a heavy load of Advanced Placement courses, Masterman ranks 45th on U.S. News & World Report's list of top high schools. (Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County ranks first.)

Much of Obama's education focus during his presidency has been on high schools at the other end of the spectrum, those known as "dropout factories." His administration is pouring billions of dollars into efforts to identify chronically struggling schools and turn them around, sometimes by firing teachers. That effort has provoked much debate.

But Tuesday's speech was directed at students, not policymakers.

The 19-minute address steered clear of politics, yet touched on some themes that are on voters' minds in the run-up to November's midterm elections.

"I know a lot of you are also feeling the strain of some difficult times," Obama told the students. "You know what's going on in the news, and you also know what's going on in some of your own families. You've read about the war in Afghanistan. You hear about the recession we've been through."

Then he said: "Nothing - absolutely nothing - is beyond your reach. So long as you're willing to dream big. So long as you're willing to work hard. So long as you're willing to stay focused on your education. There's not a single thing that any of you cannot accomplish - not a single thing."

Obama also decried school bullies and urged tolerance. "In some places, the problem is even more serious. There are neighborhoods in my home town of Chicago and there are neighborhoods right here in Philadelphia where kids are doing each other serious harm," he said, adding that "life is precious, and part of what makes it so wonderful is its diversity."

Last year, Obama gave a similar televised pep talk at Wakefield High School in Arlington. That speech roused controversy beforehand as critics suggested that it could inject ideology into the classroom. The debate was stoked when the Education Department released a proposed lesson plan with a section - later changed - that suggested that students who watched the speech could write about how they could help the president.

This year, there was no such proposed lesson plan, and there was little debate before the address.

Obama is not the first president to give a motivational speech to students in a school setting; President George H.W. Bush did so in 1991.

Carlton Mosley, 17, a 12th-grader at Masterman who was in the audience in the school's ornate two-story auditorium, said Obama's message resonated with students. "Who could disagree with following your dreams and working hard?" he said. Mosley called the speech "an amazing experience - like he was speaking right to me."

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