WASHINGTON, D.C. The speech will be available in Lee County classrooms but Collier County school officials are once again not airing the speech.
As Prepared for Delivery –
Hello, everybody! It’s great to be here at Benjamin Banneker High School, one of the best high schools in Washington, D.C. Thank you, Donae, for that introduction. I also want to thank Arne Duncan, our excellent Secretary of Education, for being here with me today.
We’ve got students tuning in from all across America, and so I want to welcome all of you to this new school year. I know that here at Banneker, you’ve been back at school for a few weeks now. So everything’s starting to settle in for you, just like for your peers all across the country. The fall sports seasons are underway. Musicals and marching band routines are shaping up. And your first big tests and projects are probably just around the corner.
I know that you’ve got a lot to deal with outside of school, too. Your circle of friends might be changing. Issues that used to stay confined to hallways or locker rooms now find their way into your Facebook feeds and Twitter accounts. And some of your families might be feeling the strain of this economy. You might have picked up an after-school job to help out, or maybe you’re babysitting for a younger sibling because Mom or Dad is working an extra shift.
So you’ve got a lot on your plates. You guys are growing up faster and interacting with the wider world in a way that old folks like me didn’t have to. So today, I don’t want to be another adult who stands up to lecture you like you’re just kids. Because you’re not just kids. You’re this country’s future. Whether we fall behind or race ahead in the coming years is up to you. And I want to talk to you about meeting that responsibility.
It starts with being the best student you can be. Now, that doesn’t always mean you have to get a perfect score on every assignment. It doesn’t have to mean straight A’s all the time—although that’s a good goal to strive for. It means you have to keep at it. It means you have to work as hard as you know how. And it means that you take some risks once in a while. You wonder. You question. You explore. You color outside the lines every now and then.
That’s what school’s for: discovering new passions and acquiring the skills to pursue those passions in the future. That’s why one hour you can be an artist; the next, an author; the next, a scientist. Or a historian. Or a carpenter. This is the time when you can try out new interests and test new ideas. And the more you do, the sooner you’ll figure out what makes you come alive.
If you promise not to tell anyone, I’ll let you in on a little secret: I wasn’t always the very best student. I didn’t love every class I took. I remember when I was in eighth grade, I had to take a class called “ethics”. Ethics is about right and wrong, but if you’d have asked me what my favorite subject was in eighth grade, I’d have said “basketball.” I don’t think ethics would have made the list.
But you know what? I still remember that ethics class. I remember the way it made me think. I remember being asked questions like “What matters in life?” “What does it mean to treat people with respect and dignity?” “What does it mean to live in a diverse nation?” Each question led to a new one, and I didn’t always know the answer right away. But those discussions and that process of discovery are still with me today. Every day, I’m thinking about what those issues mean for us as a nation. I’m asking all sorts of questions just like those. And I’ll let you in on another secret: I still don’t always know the answers. But if I’d have just tuned out because the class sounded boring, I might have missed out on something that I enjoyed and something that’s still useful to me today.
So that’s a big part of your responsibility: Testing things out. Taking risks. Working hard. Engaging with the world around you. Those are the things that will make school more fun. And down the road, those are the traits that will help you succeed – the traits that will lead you to invent a device that makes the iPad look like a stone tablet. Or figure out a way to use the sun and wind to power a city. Or write the next great American novel.
Now, to do almost any of those things, you have to not only graduate from high school, but continue your education after you leave. That might mean a four-year university, a community college, or a professional credential or training, but the fact of the matter is that more than 60 percent of jobs in the next decade will require more than a high school diploma. That’s the world you’re walking into.
So I want all of you to set a goal to continue your education after high school. And if that means college for you, just getting in isn’t enough. You’ve got to finish. Our country used to have the world’s highest proportion of young people with a college degree. Now we’re 16th. That’s not good enough. And so we need your generation to bring us back to the top.
If we do that, you guys will have a brighter future. And so will America. We’ll be able to make sure the newest inventions and latest breakthroughs happen right here in the United States. It means better jobs, more fulfilling lives, and greater opportunities for your kids. So I don’t want anyone listening today to think that once you’re done with high school, you’re done learning. Or that college isn’t for you. You have to start expecting big things for yourself right now.
I know all this can be intimidating. You might be wondering how you’ll pay for college. Or you might not know what you want to do with your life. That’s OK. Nobody expects you to predict the future. And we shouldn’t expect you to make it on your own.
You’ve got your parents. They love you to death and want you to have even more opportunities than they had. So don’t give them a hard time when they ask you to turn off the video games and the television, and sit down to help you with your homework.
You’ve also got people all across this country – including me – working on your behalf. We’re taking every step we can to ensure that you’re getting an educational system that’s worthy of your potential. We’re working to make sure that you have the most up-to-date schools with the latest tools for learning. We’re making sure that our country’s colleges and universities are affordable and accessible. And we’re working to get the best teachers into your classrooms, so they can prepare you for college and a future career.
Now, teachers are the men and women who might be working harder than anybody. Whether you go to a big school or a small one, whether you attend a public, private, or charter school – your teachers are giving up their weekends and waking up at dawn. They’re cramming their days full of classes and extra-curriculars. Then they’re going home, eating some dinner, and staying up past midnight to grade your papers.
And they don’t do it for a fancy office or a big salary. They do it for you. They live for those moments when something clicks, when you amaze them with your intellect and they see the kind of person you can become. They know that you’ll be the citizens and leaders who take us into tomorrow. They know that you’re the future.
But I also want to emphasize this: with all of the challenges that our country faces today, we don’t just need you for the future – we need you now. America needs your passion, your ideas, and your energy right at this moment. I know you’re up to it because I’ve seen it. Nothing inspires me more than knowing that young people all across the country are already making their marks. They’re not waiting for anybody.
They’re students like Will Kim from Fremont, California, who launched a nonprofit that gives loans to students from low-income schools who want to start their own businesses. And he’s raising the money doing what he loves: through dodgeball tournaments and capture-the-flag games.
Jake Bernstein, a 17-year-old from a military family in St. Louis, worked with his sister to launch a website devoted to community service for young people. They’ve held volunteer fairs, put up an online database, and helped thousands of families find volunteer opportunities that range from maintaining nature trails to serving at local hospitals.
And last year, I met a young woman named Amy Chyao from Richardson, Texas.