Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Message of the President at Wakefield High

I had the extraordinary privilege yesterday of participating in an historic event. I knew it was historic as did the gymnasium full of young people and adults who were experiencing it along with me. The principal of Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia, Mrs. Doris Jackson knew it, and she reminded the students to “be in the moment.” She told them that she knew they were excited, and they were going to want to take pictures and text and “all that,” but she seriously implored them to take time to “BE in the moment.”

“You will talk about this day not just today and tonight and tomorrow...but you will talk about this day to your children years from now...and to their children.”

It was a reminder to everyone in the room that an important moment was about to take place. And those in the gymnasium were going to have the honor of being there to experience it in person.

I felt the electric energy of those hundreds of young people as I entered their school gym. I have no idea how long they had been sitting there, patiently waiting. And they did wait patiently. There was a buzz in the room, but there were no antics, no horseplay, no tomfoolery.

There was just eager anticipation. The crowd erupted into enthusiastic cheers every time the announcer came on the loudspeaker. When Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was being introduced, the crowd came dangerously close to booing because their patience had just about been exhausted by then. They wanted to see and hear their President!

When he finally approached the podium, the students erupted. One might have wondered if they had wandered into a rock concert. This President has an extraordinary appeal, and that, I suspect, is what the critics were so worried about as they voiced their otherwise incomprehensible objections over the President’s desire to speak to the nation’s children on the first day of a new school year.

Part of the President’s appeal to this crowd, however, is that he is one of them. He WAS one of them as a teenager. He reminded his listeners that he had not always been President. He was a kid whose dad disappeared when he was only two years old. He was raised by a single mother who struggled with the everyday challenge of paying the bills, and she wasn’t always able to give him everything that other kids had. There were times when he missed having a father in his life. There were times when he was lonely and didn’t fit in. So he wasn’t always as focused as he should have been, and he sometimes got into trouble. “And,” the President admitted, “my life could have easily taken a turn for the worse.”

The difference for the President was that he got some “second chances,” and he took advantage of them and went to college and law school and “followed his dreams.”

His story is not so different from the story of millions of students who populate our classrooms every day. Every teacher knows them. The kids who are struggling with challenges at home that interfere with their ability to concentrate and care about school. Today, perhaps more than ever, kids are suffering from the same worries and anxieties as their parents. There are a lot of families who are struggling right now. Millions have lost their jobs. Millions have lost their homes. Millions more are hanging on by their fingernails, barely keeping up, living month to month with no savings to speak of. The future is uncertain at best and scary at worst. And on top of it all, the adults in their lives seem to have, in some cases, lost their senses and all sense of reality.

The whole speech was, in my opinion, worthy of any student’s attention.

Some of the gems that I took special note of as I sat there and listened in rapt attention along with the rest of folks in the room include the following:

“You become good at some things through hard work.” He followed that up by encouraging students to experiment with different things and pursue different topics in order to learn what they are “good at.” He encouraged them to take advantage of every opportunity to learn and participate in activities so they could discover their own individual talents, abilities, and passions.

“All kids deserve a safe environment to study and learn,” and he suggested that perhaps his listeners might decide to “stand up for kids who are being teased or bullied because of who they are or how they look.”

“There is no excuse for not trying.”

What else can you say about that?

When I returned home from Arlington yesterday, I walked into a local 7-Eleven to get a cup of coffee, and I saw a couple of my former students. The last time I saw them, they were in the third grade. This year they are starting fifth grade. As is typical of boys that age, they had grown about six inches since the last time I saw them, but they recognized me immediately and spoke.

I told them that I had just been to hear the President’s speech, and their eyes lit up, and one of them said, “Realllllly???”

I asked them if they had had a chance to see it at school. “No. They told us we might get to see it Friday,” they said rather wistfully.

I was sad for them that they didn’t get to participate in the historic moment live, because, frankly, I think it will likely lose something in its delayed format.

Don’t get me wrong. The message will still be strong and clear.

Work hard. Do your best. Stay in school. Take personal responsibility for your own success. There is no excuse for not trying.

Those are powerful words any time, live or taped.

Furthermore, I believe that the words are particularly powerful when delivered in the context of a culture that glamorizes and glorifies individuality but diminishes and downplays the idea of personal responsibility.

Hum. Maybe that is what the critics were worried about.

Regardless of the critics and pundits and the Twitterers, in the end, the President proved once again that he has an extraordinary talent for using words and ideas to communicate important concepts and messages. I believe that his message resonated in a powerful way with his young listeners yesterday at Wakefield High and in the hundreds of schools where it was allowed to play live. I believe that it will resonate in a powerful way with the listeners who have an opportunity to listen to it later as well. It’s just that they won’t experience the same sense of participating in an historic moment.

It won’t be a critical difference, perhaps, but it will be a difference.

One last thought before I sign off.

I think we should ALL take the President’s message to heart even though we may not be students, and as adults, we are not necessarily the intended audience. That makes his message no less important, however.

“Work hard. Do your best. There’s no excuse for not trying.”

Wouldn’t our country be better off if we all took that message to heart everyday in everything we do?

Wouldn’t we be better off as a country, as citizens, and as human beings trying to make a positive difference in this world of ours?

Until later,