Obama exhorts children to stay in school, work hard

School speechThough it inspired a swirling controversy about politics in the classroom over the past week, President Barack Obama’s back-to-school address to America’s students on Tuesday ended up being decidedly motivational rather than political ? and even won praise from some Republicans.

Speaking to students in a nationwide broadcast from a suburban D.C. high school, the Democratic president urged school children to rise above their mistakes and challenges to succeed in school, offering himself as an example of “a goof-off” who went on to make good.

“You can’t drop out of school and just drop into a good job,” Obama said. “You’ve got to work for it and train for it and learn for it.”

Former first lady Laura Bush defended the president’s decision to give the speech, saying she thinks there’s “a place for the president of the United States to talk to schoolchildren.”

A conservative GOP candidate for Senate in Pennsylvania applauded the address as “inspiring” and “moving.” And after the speech was over, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich even said the country would be “much better off” if Obama could replicate the tone of the school speech when he addresses Congress on Wednesday.

But while the president’s sharpest critic on the matter joined in the chorus of approval of the final product, he also suggested that criticism in the run-up to the delivery may have shaped the event itself.

“My kids watched it and I thought it was appropriate,” Florida Republican Party chairman Jim Greer said in an interview with Tribune Newspapers. “The White House responded to the concerns of parents and educators across this country.”

White House officials were not sure how many schools had shown the speech, broadcast on CNN and C-SPAN as well as via live podcast. Officials in a handful of school districts in Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin had said in recent days that they would not show the speech in class.

The dispute took the White House by surprise last week. In pre-speech materials that the Department of Education put together for teachers, writers suggested a classroom activity in which students think of ways they could help the president meet his goals.

Greer took to the airwaves with complaints that such classroom activities could take a turn toward propaganda, and others echoed the concern. The discussion ramped up into a full-scale news story, dominating cable and talk radio for days.

Before it was over, the administration revised the materials to encourage students to set their own educational goals and decided to post the text of the speech on the Internet in advance.

By the time Obama arrived at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va., on Tuesday morning, some critics were already complimenting the address he was about to give. At a morning meeting with a small group of Wakefield ninth-graders, Obama held a question-and-answer session, in which one student asked the president how his life might have been different if his father had been around as he was growing up. The student told the president that he is the son of divorced parents.

The absence of his father, Obama said, “in some ways forced me to grow up faster.”

“It meant that I made more mistakes because I didn’t have somebody to tell me, here’s how you do this or here’s how you do that,” he said. “But on the other hand, I had to, I think, raise myself a little bit more. I had to be more supportive of my mother because I knew how hard she was working. And so, in some ways, maybe it made me stronger over time, just like it may be making you stronger over time.”

Afterward, the president went to a gymnasium filled with hundreds of students, faculty members and elected officials, where he talked to a nationwide audience about his own youth and the challenges he faced ? and mistakes he made.

“Now I know it’s not always easy to do well in school,” he said. “I know a lot of you have challenges in your lives right now that can make it hard to focus on your schoolwork.”

With his father gone and his mother struggling to pay the bills, he said, he was sometimes lonely and felt as if he didn’t fit in, he said. “So I wasn’t always as focused as I should have been,” said Obama, who in his autobiography confessed to experimenting with drugs in his past.

“I did some things I’m not proud of, and got in more trouble than I should have. And my life could have easily taken a turn for the worse.”

But he made the most of his opportunities, he said, and he asked students to do the same.

“The president’s emphasis on responsibility and the personal stories about his own education are exactly the kind of inspiring messages our children need to hear from our country’s leaders,” said Pat Toomey, the conservative Republican running for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania.

(c) 2009, Tribune Co. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.