3rd graders hear their president urge them on
on September 8, 2009
Fifteen pairs of eyes in Muslimah Mohammed’s class at Santa Fe Elementary School were fixed on the television screen this morning, watching President Obama address the nation’s students.
“I know that for many of you, today is the first day of school,” the President began, drawing cautious nods from the attentive third-graders, who had actually started school eight days earlier. “Some of you are probably wishing it were still summer, and you could’ve stayed in bed just a little longer this morning.”
The excitement over the President’s speech, presented as his kickoff challenge to American students for the 2009-2010 school year, had begun earlier that morning when children filed excitedly into school– the beginning of their second week at Santa Fe, located at 54th and Adeline in North Oakland. Young ones held their parents’ hands as they made their way into the cafeteria to eat their breakfast, while the older kids gathered with their friends, laughing and catching up after a long weekend.
Carol Johnson, the principal of the school, began the day on the loudspeaker, announcing that teachers would be asking every student to think about what the President had to say to them this morning. But first it was time for the school pledge.
Three students joined Johnson in her office, reading the lines they have heard each morning since they were kindergarteners. As they spoke, a giant chorus of tiny voices echoed their words through the hallways.
“I am a Santa Fe School Scholar. I am prepared and positive. I come to school ready to learn. I am kind to everyone, and respectful of their belongings. I am honest and responsible for my actions. I solve conflicts in a peaceful way. I always do my best… I am a winner!”
Johnson asked everyone in the building for a minute of “quiet stillness,” to prepare for the day ahead. At Santa Fe Elementary, the morning routine helps get kids ready to learn each day, Johnson said; providing stability is one of the most important things schools can do. And while some administrators have said Obama’s speech would distract students at the beginning of a new year, Johnson saw it as an opportunity to motivate students and start the year strong.
“Our entire student population watched the inauguration, which was an extraordinary experience,” said Johnson. “Our students are consistently encouraged to do their best at all times. President Obama’s address will emphasize many points that their teachers and elders have been communicating to them.”
The students in Mohammed’s third grade class looked up as Johnson entered their classroom. Seeing a familiar face, their heads turned back to the television, which hung high on the far wall of the room. Below the TV, a poster board displayed the Pan-African flag and the Nguzo Saba (The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa), in Swahili and English. Nearly the entire class was African-American.
And now the President of the United States, who looked sort of like them, was talking about getting up early for school.
“I know that feeling,” he said. “When I was young, my family lived in Indonesia for a few years, and my mother didn’t have the money to send me where all the American kids went to school. So she decided to teach me extra lessons herself, Monday through Friday – at 4:30 in the morning.”
A few students exchanged expressive glances. Well, they didn’t have it that bad.
“I wasn’t too happy about getting up that early,” Obama continued. “A lot of times, I’d fall asleep right there at the kitchen table. But whenever I’d complain, my mother would just give me one of those looks and say, ‘This is no picnic for me either, buster.’”
The President made references to Michael Jordan, J.K. Rowling, Facebook and Xbox. He challenged America’s youth to study hard, never to give up on themselves, and to “get serious” about their education this year. When the speech ended, one wide-eyed boy in red eagerly jotted down the telephone number for students to call and respond to the speech. A moment later, when the teacher asked the class to give one word that summed up the speech, his hand was the first to fly into the air. “Exciting!” he said.
Last week, critics stirred a media fuss over the plans for Obama’s speech, asserting that Obama would use the opportunity to push a political agenda on children. Florida Republican Party chairman Jim Greer said in a statement that as the father of four, he was “absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama’s socialist ideology.”
Many school districts and administrators across the country reported hearing complaints from parents regarding the nature of Obama’s speech. These concerns, coupled with scheduling conflicts, meant that many schools chose not to broadcast the speech. Santa Fe’s principal Johnson said she heard no such complaints, though. “I think there would be more disappointment in the community if we didn’t show it,” she said.
After the advance text of the speech was released yesterday, Greer said he’d had a change of heart, and that he would let his kids watch after all. But while the apolitical nature of the speech delivered Tuesday may have quieted voices in the media, it raised voices in the classroom:
“Never give up!”
While the boy who shouted this last answer didn’t exactly follow Mohammed’s directive–she had asked them to sum up the speech in a single word– the teacher was eager to hear more. She asked him to elaborate.
“(Obama) said that Michael Jordan missed 1,000 shots but he didn’t give up.”
“What did he do?” Mohammed asked.
“He kept on playing!” the student said.
Other presidents have addressed young people before, Johnson said–Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush both gave televised speeches to students during their presidential terms. But Obama’s background and upbringing make him different, she said, allowing him to “connect with their everyday experience” growing up in Oakland. Just yesterday, a 17-year old girl was shot and killed a few blocks away from Santa Fe Elementary.
But Obama’s speech reinforced the idea that with hard work and resiliency, anyone can be successful, despite the challenges that they face. “Where you are right now doesn’t have to determine where you’ll end up,” he said. “No one’s written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future.”
Back in the classroom, Mohammed had one more question before recess.
“What’s one thing you’re going to do to get serious this year?” she asked.
A little boy sitting at the front of the class, who had been quiet the whole time, scratched his head for a moment. Finally he raised his hand.
“I want to learn more than play,” he said. “I might have to give up on recess.”
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