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The Fix
This was the best week of Obama’s presidency

By Chris Cillizza June 26 at 4:38 PM

When President Obama neared the end of his eulogy Friday for the late South Carolina state Sen. Clementa Pinckney (D), a victim of the shootings at a Charleston church last week, he paused. A long pause. It was a moment of genuine drama. Had he lost his place? Were his emotions getting to him?

Then, he started to sing — the opening bars to “Amazing Grace.” Soon, the entire congregation at the AME Emanuel Church joined him in song.

President Obama brought mourners to their feet during his eulogy of South Carolina state Sen. Clementa Pinckney as he sang a verse from the song “Amazing Grace.”

It was a moment of considerable weight and significance: A black president leading a congregation in song at a place where nine black people were murdered by a man with the apparent goal of starting a race war.

And, it served as the coda to Obama’s single best week as president — a week filled with developments, both practical and symbolic, that will reverberate well beyond not only this week or month but his entire presidency.

The week began with Obama winning a trade fight over fast-track negotiating authority that looked to be on thin ice even a week ago. He did so by pulling off something even more remarkable and unlikely: successfully collaborating with Republican congressional leaders to find a path to passage of a rare shared priority.

While fast-track authority for Obama is not the same thing as a successfully negotiated Trans Pacific Partnership (get smart on all the trade deals here) it preserves the possibility of that 12-nation deal coming to fruition and provides Obama a bit of momentum stateside as well. If Obama is able to help make TPP happen, that will be a major foreign policy achievement with consequences lasting well beyond his presidency.

Then came the Supreme Court’s ruling Thursday that upheld the subsidies for low- and middle-income Americans using the federal marketplace under the Affordable Care Act. That judgment, the second time the court had upheld a provision of Obamacare, ended perhaps the last major hope of anti-ACA forces to defund or discredit the bill.

Obama did everything he could to avoid spiking the football in a statement following the court’s decision. But whether he came out and said it or not, the court’s ruling on Obamacare validated what is, without question, the defining policy accomplishment of Obama’s time in office. Had the court decided the other way, the legacy of Obamacare would have been deeply muddled — and it might not have even survived in anything close to a recognizable form. Given how much Obama and his party had lost in the fight for the law, that would have been disastrous. Winning, on the other hand, was a massive affirmation.

Twenty four hours later, the court was back at it — legalizing same sex marriage nationwide. Obama was a late-arriver on the issue, without question. He supported only civil unions during his 2008 campaign and it wasn’t until May 2012 — as his race for reelection neared — that Obama finally came out in support of gay marriage.

But even prior to Obama’s own public statement in support of same-sex marriage, his administration was taking actions that led to Friday’s ruling. In 2011, the Justice Department announced it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act; in June 2013, the Court struck DOMA — a decision that set things in motion for Friday’s ruling.

And Obama carved out time in his second inaugural address to express his belief that allowing gays and lesbians to marry was part of the greater American movement to freedom and equality. “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well,” he said that day.

On Friday, in remarks delivered after the marriage ruling, Obama returned to that theme. “Today we can say, in no uncertain terms, that we have made our union a little more perfect,” Obama declared.

Then Obama got on a plane bound for Charleston where, nine days earlier, the latest in a string of mass shooting during his time in office had been committed in the basement of a famous African American church.

The speech Obama delivered, easily one of his best few as president, was a stirring appeal to the redemptive power of grace. It was about how finding grace — even in tragedies like those visited on the church where he spoke — was at the essence of who we all are. Obama touched on gun control, on race relations, on how what divides us is dwarfed by what unites us.

And then be broke into song. It was a genuine moment that will be remembered long after the 2016 election decides who will follow Obama into office. The most powerful person in the country, singing the words “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…that saved a wretch like me” with the eyes of the country on him. It was deeply stirring and emotional — not just for Democrats or African Americans but for Americans, period.

This was a week that will define not only Obama’s second term and his presidency. This is a week that will leave profound implications on our society, setting off ripples that we may not fully grasp for years if not decades.

Obama ran as a change agent. For better or worse, this is the week he realized that destiny most fully during his time in office.

(CNN) — Good afternoon, everybody.  And thank you, Christian, for that outstanding introduction.   And thank you for cheering for the White Sox, which is the right thing to do.

Like your parents and your teachers, I could not be prouder of you, I could not be prouder of the other young men who were here today. But just so that you are clear, you are only excused for day of school.

And I’m assuming you have your assignments with you so you can catch up, perhaps even on the flight back. 

As Christian mentioned, I first met Christian about a year ago. I visited the Hyde Park Academy in Chicago only about a mile from my house. And Christian was part of this program called “Becoming a Man.” It was a program that the Mayor Rahm Emmanuel introduced to me. And it helps(ed) young men who show a lot potential and may have gotten in some trouble to stay on the right path. They gpt help with school work, but they also learned life skills, like how to be a responsible citizen, and how to deal with life’s challenges, and how to manage frustrations in a constructive way, and how to set goals for themselves. It works. One study found among young man who participated, arrests for violent crimes dropped 44 percent. And they were more likely to graduate from high school.

So as Christian mentioned, during my visit, they’re in a circle, and I sat down in the circle, and we went around, led by their counselor, and guys talked about their lives, talked about their stories, talked about what they were struggling with and how they were trying to do the right thing, and they didn’t always do the right thing.

And when it was my turn, I explained to them when I was their age, I was a lot like them. I didn’t have a dad in the house. And I was angry about it, even though I didn’t necessarily realized at the time. I made bad choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do. I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short.

And I remember when I was saying this, Christian, you may remember this — after I was finished, the guy sitting next to me said, “Are you talking about you?” I said, “yes.”

And the point was I could see myself in these young men. And the only difference is that I grew up in an environment that was a little bit more forgiving. So when I made a mistake, the consequences were not as severe. I had people who encouraged me, not just my mom and grandparents, but wonderful teachers and community leaders. And they pushed me to work hard and study hard and make the most of myself. And If I didn’t listen, they said it again. And if I didn’t listen, they said it a third time and they would give me second chances and third chances. They never gave up on me, and so I didn’t give up on myself.

I told these young men my story then, and I repeat it now, because I firmly believe that every child deserves the same chances that I had.

That’s why we are here today, to do what we can in this year of action to give more young Americans the support they need to make good choices, and to be resilient and overcome obstacles and achieve their dreams.

This is an issue of national importance. This is as important as any issue that I work on. It’s an issue that goes to the very heart of why I ran for president.

Because if America stands for anything, it stands for the idea of opportunity for everybody. The notion that no matter who you are or where you came from, or the circumstances into which you are born, if you work hard, if you take responsibility, then you can make it in this country.

That’s the core idea. That’s the idea behind everything that I will do this year and for the rest of my presidency. Because at a time when the economy is growing, we’ve got to make sure that every American shares in that growth, not just a few, and that means guaranteeing every child in America has access to a world class education. It means creating more jobs and empowering more workers with the skills they need to do those jobs. It means making sure that hard work pays off with wages you can live on, and savings you can retire on and health care that you can count on. It means building more ladders of opportunity and the middle class for anybody who is willing to work hard to climb it. Those are national issues. They have an impact on everybody.

And the problem of stagnant wages, and economic insecurity and stalled mobility are issues that affect all demographic groups across the country. My administration’s policies from early childhood education to job training to minimum wages are designed to give a hand up to everybody, every child, every American willing to work hard and take responsibility for their own success. That’s the larger agenda.

The plain fact is, there are some Americans who in the aggregate are consistently doing worse in our society. Groups that have had the odds stacked against them in unique way that require unique solutions, groups who have seen fewer opportunities that have spanned generations.

And by almost every measure, the group that is facing some of the most severe challenges in the 21st century, in this country, are boys and young men of color.

Now, to say this is not to deny the enormous strides we’ve made in closing the gaps that have mired our history for so long. My presence is a testimony to that.

Across the businesses, military, communities in every state, we see extraordinary examples of African-American and Latino men who are standing tall and leading and building businesses and making our country stronger.

Some of those role models who have defied the odds are here with us today. You know, the Magic Johnsons or the Colin Powells — who are doing extraordinary things — the Anthony Foxxes.

Anthony and I were talking yesterday about how both of us never knew our dads, and shared that sense of both how hard that had been, but also how that had driven us to succeed in many ways.

So those are examples of extraordinary achievement. We all know that. We don’t need to stereotype that there is no dysfunction out there.

But 50 years after Dr. King talked about his dream for America’s children, the stubborn fact is that the life chances, the average black or brown child in this country, lags behind by almost every measure and is worse for boys and young men.

If you’re African-American, there’s about one-in-two chance you grow up without a father in your house. Too, if you’re Latino, you have about one-in-four chance.

We know boys who grow up without a father are more likely to be poor and as a black student you are less likely to read as proficient in the fourth grade.

By the time you reach high school, you are far more likely to have been suspended or expelled. There’s a higher chance you end up in the criminal justice system. And a far higher chance that you are the victim of a violent crime.

Fewer black and Latino men participate in the labor force, compared to young white men. And all of this translates into higher unemployment rates and poverty rates as adults.

And the worst part is, we’ve become numb to these statistics. We’re not surprised by them. We take them as the norm. We just assume this is an inevitable part of American life, instead of the outrage that it is. That’s how we think about it.

It’s like a cultural backdrop force in movies, television. We just assume, of course it’s going to be like that. But these statistics should break our hearts, and they should compel us to act.

You know, Michelle and I are blessed with two beautiful daughters. We don’t have a son, but I know if I had a son, on the day he was born, I would have felt everything that I felt with Malia and Sasha, the awe, the gratitude, overwhelming responsibility to do everything in my power to protect that amazing new life from this big world out there.

And I want my son to feel a sense of boundless possibility. I want him to have independence and confidence. I want him to have empathy and compassion.

I want him to have a sense of diligence and compassion for himself, the tools that he would need to succeed.

I don’t have a son, but as parents, that’s what we should want, not just for our children but for all children.

(APPLAUSE)

And I believe the continuing struggles of so many boys and young men, the fact that too many of them are falling by the wayside, dropping out, unemployed, involved in negative behavior, going to jail, being profiled, this is a moral issue for our country.

It’s also an economic issue for our country. After all, these boys are a growing segment of our population. They are our future workforce.

When generation after generation they lag behind, our economy suffers. Our family structure suffers. Our civic life suffers. Cycles of hopelessness breeds violence and mistrust, and our country’s a little less than what we know it can be.

So, we need to change the statistics, not just for the sake of the young men and boys but for the sake of America’s future.

And that’s why, in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin verdict, with all of the emotions and controversy that it sparked, I spoke about the need to bolster and reinforce our young men and give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them.

And I’m grateful that Trayvon’s parents, Sybrina and Tracy, are here with us today, along with Jordan Davis’ parents, Lucy and Ron.

(APPLAUSE)

In my State of the Union address last month, I said I’d pick up the phone and reach out to Americans willing to help young men of color so America can reach its full potential.

And that’s what today is all about. After months of conversation with a wide range of people, we’ve pulled together private philanthropies and businesses, mayors, state and local leaders, faith leaders, nonprofits, all who are committed to creating more pathways to success, and we’re committed to building on what works. And we call it My Brother’s Keeper.

Just to be clear, My Brother’s Keeper is not some new, big government program. In my State of the Union address, I outlined the work that needs to be done for broad base economic growth, the manufacturing hubs, infrastructure spending.

I’ve been talking about what we feed to do to expand economic activity for everybody. And in the absence of some of those macroeconomic policies that create more good jobs and restore security, it’s going to be hard for everyone to make progress.

And for the last four years, we’ve been working through initiatives like “promise zones,” from lack of transportation to schools that are inflicted, and we’ll continue to promote these efforts in rural and urban schools.

Those are programs that we think are good for all Americans and we’re going to keep on pushing for them.

But what we’re talking about here today with My Brother’s Keeper is a more focused effort on boys and young men of color who are having a particularly tough time.

And in this effort, government cannot play the only or even the primary role. We can help give every child access to quality preschool and help them start learning from an early age, but we can’t replace the power of a parent who’s reading to that child.

We can reform our criminal justice system to ensure that it’s not infected with bias.

But nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who takes an active role in his son’s life.

In other words, broadening the horizons for our young men, giving them the tools that they need to succeed will require a sustained effort from all of us.

Parents will have to parent and turn off the television and help with homework.

Teachers will need to do their part to make sure our kids don’t fall behind and that we’re setting high expectations for those children and not giving up on them — Well, feel free to stand up —

(applause) to help young boys at risk of dropping out of school.

Today it serves thousands of students in dozens of schools, as mayor of New York, Mayor Bloomberg, Michael Bloomberg, who’s here today, started a young man’s initiative for African-American and Latino boys because he understood that in order for America to compete, we need to make it easier for all our young people to do better in the classroom and find a job once they graduate.

A bipartisan group of mayors called Cities United has made this issue a priority in communities across the country. Senator Mike Lee, a leader of the Tea Party, has been working with Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat from my home state of Illinois, to reduce disparities in our criminal justice system that have hit the African-American and Latino communities especially hard.

So I want to thank everybody who’s been doing incredible work, many of the people who are here today, including members of Congress, who, you know, have been focused on this and are moving the needle in their communities and around the country.

They understand that giving every young person who’s willing to work hard a shot at opportunity should not be a partisan issue. Yes, we need to train our workers, invest in our schools, make college more affordable, and government has a role to play, and, yes, we need to encourage fathers to stick around and remove the barriers to marriage and talk openly about things like responsibility and faith and community.

In the words of Dr. King, it is not either/or. It is both/and. And, you know, if I can if I can persuade, you know, Sharpton and O’Reilly to be in the same meeting…

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

… then it means that there are people of good faith who want to get some stuff done, even if we don’t agree on everything, and that’s our focus.

While there may not be much of an appetite in Congress for sweeping new programs or major new initiatives right now, we all know we can’t wait. And so the good news is, folks in the private sector, who know how important boosting the achievement of young men of color is to this country, they are ready to step up.

Today, I’m pleased to announce that some of the most forward-looking foundations in America are looking to invest at least $200 million over the next five years, on top of the $150 million that they have already invested, to test which strategies are working for our kids and expand them in cities across the country.

(APPLAUSE)

Many of these folks have been on the front lines in this fight for a long time. And what’s more, they’re joined by business leaders, corporate leaders, entrepreneurs who are stepping forward to support this effort as well.

And my administration is going to do its part. So, today, after my remarks are done, I’m going to pen this presidential memorandum directing the federal government not to spend more money, but to do things smarter, to determine what we can do right now to improve the odds for boys and young men of color, and make sure our agencies are working more effectively with each other, with those businesses, with those philanthropies and with local communities to implement proven solutions.

And part of what makes this initiative so promising is that we actually know what works, and we know when it works. What do I mean by that? Over the years, we have identified key moments in the life of a boy or a young man of color that will more often than not determine whether he succeeds or falls through the cracks.

We know this — we know the data. We know the statistics. And if we can focus on those key moments, those life-changing points in their lives, you can have a big impact, you can boost the odds for more of our kids.

First of all, we know that during the first three years of life, a child born into a low-income family hears 30 million fewer words than a child born into a well-off family. And everybody knows, babies are sponges. They just soak that up.

A 30 million-word deficit is hard to make up. And if a black or Latino kid isn’t ready for kindergarten, he’s half as likely to finish middle school with strong academic and social skills. So, by giving more of our kids access to high-quality early education and by helping parents get the tools they need to help their children succeed, we can give more kids a better shot at the career they’re capable of and the life that will make us all better off.

So, that’s point number one right at the beginning. Point number two, if a child can’t read well by the time he’s in third grade, he’s four times less likely to graduate from high school by age 19 than one who can. And if he happens to be poor, he’s six times less likely to graduate.

So, by boosting reading levels, we can help more of our kids make the grade, keep on advancing, reach that day that so many parents dream of until it comes close, and then you start tearing up. And that’s when they’re walking across the stage holding that high school diploma.

Number three, we know that Latino kids are almost twice as likely as white kids to be suspended from school. Black kids are nearly four times as likely. And if a student has been suspended even once by the time they are in ninth grade, they are twice as likely to drop out.

That’s why my administration has been working with schools on alternatives to the so-called zero-tolerance guidelines, not because teachers or administrators or fellow students should have to put up with bad behavior, but because there are ways to modify bad behavior that lead to good behavior, as opposed to bad behavior out of school.

We can make classes good places for learning for everybody without jeopardizing a child’s future.

(APPLAUSE)

And by building on that work, we can keep more of our young men where they belong, in the classroom, learning, growing, gaining the skills they need to succeed.

Number four, we know that students of color are far more likely than their white classmates to find themselves in trouble with the law. If a student gets arrested, he’s almost as likely to drop out of school. By making sure our criminal justice system doesn’t just function as a pipeline for underfunded schools to overcrowded jails, we can help young men of color stay out of prison, stay out of jail.

And that means then they’re more likely to be employable and to invest in their own families and to pass on a legacy of love and hope. And, finally, we know young black men are twice as likely as young white men to be disconnected, not in school, not in working.

We have got to reconnect them. We have got to give more of these young men access to mentors. We have got to continue to encourage responsible fatherhood. We have got to provide more pathways to apply to college or find a job.

We can keep them from falling through the cracks and help them lay a foundation for a career and a family and a better life. In the discussion before we came in, General Powell talked about the fact that there are going to be some kids who just don’t have a family at home that is functional, no matter how hard we try.

But just an adult, any adult who’s paying attention can make a difference. Any adult who cares can make a difference.

Magic was talking about being in a school in Chicago and, rather than going to the school, he brought the school to the company, Allstate, that was doing the work, and, suddenly, just that one conversation meant these young men saw something different. A world opened up for them.

It doesn’t take that much, but it takes more than we’re doing now. And that’s what My Brother’s Keeper is all about, helping more of our younger people to stay on track, providing the support they need to think more broadly about their future, building on what works, when it works, in those critical life-changing moments.

And when I say, by the way, building on what works, it means looking at the actual evidence of what works. There are a lot of programs out there that sound good, are well-intentioned, well-inspired, but they’re not actually having an impact.

We don’t have enough money or time or resources to invest in things that don’t work, so we have got to be pretty hard-headed about saying, if something’s not working, let’s stop doing it. Let’s do things that work.

And we shouldn’t care whether it was a Democratic program or a Republican program or a faith-based program or — if it works, we should support it. If it doesn’t, we shouldn’t, and all the time recognizing that my neighbor’s child is my child, that each of us has an obligation to give every child the same chance this country gave so many of us.

So, in closing, let me just say this. None of this is going to be easy. This is not a one-year proposition. It’s not a two-year proposition. It’s going to take time. We’re dealing with complicated issues that run deep in our history, run deep in our society, and are entrenched in our minds.

And addressing these issues will have to be a two-way bargain, because no matter how much the community chips in, it’s ultimately going to be up to these young men and all the young men who are out there to step up and seize responsibility for their own lives.

(APPLAUSE)

And that’s why I want to close by speaking directly to the young men who are here today and all the boys and young men who are watching at home.

Part of my message, part of our message in this initiative is, no excuses. Government and private sector and philanthropy and all the faith communities, we all have a responsibility to help you provide the tools you need. We got to help you knock down some of the barriers that you experience.

That’s what we’re here for. But you have got responsibilities too. And I know you can meet the challenge, and many of you already are, if you make the effort. It may be hard, but you will have to reject the cynicism that says the circumstances of your birth or society’s lingering injustices necessarily define you and your future.

It will take courage, but you will have to tune out the naysayers who say the deck is stacked against you, you might as well just give up or settle into the stereotype. It’s not going to happen overnight, but you’re going to have to set goals, and you’re going to have to work for those goals. Nothing will be given to you.

The world is tough out there, and there’s a lot of competition for jobs and college positions. And everybody has to work hard. But I know you guys can succeed. We got young men up here who are starting to make those good choices, because somebody stepped in and gave them a sense of how they might go about it.

And I know it can work because of men like Maurice Owens, who’s here today.

I want to tell Moe’s story just real quick. When Moe was 4 years old, he moved with his mom, Chavette (ph), from South Carolina to the Bronx. And his mom didn’t have a lot of money, and they lived in a tough neighborhood. Crime was high. A lot of young men ended up in jail or worse.

But she knew the importance of education. So she got Moe into the best elementary school that she could find. And, every morning, she put him on a bus. Every night, she welcomed him when he came home. She took the initiative. She eventually found a sponsorship program that allowed Moe to attend a good high school.

And while many of his friends got into trouble, some of it pretty serious, Moe just kept getting on the bus and kept working hard and reaching for something better. And he had some adults in his life who were willing to give him advice and help him along the way. And he ended up going to college and he ended up serving his country in the Air Force.

And today, Moe works in the White House, just two doors down from the Oval Office as the special assistant to my chief of staff. And —

(APPLAUSE)

And Moe never misses a chance to tell kids who grew up just like he did that if he can make it, they can, too. Moe and his mom are here today.

So, I want to thank them both for this incredible experience. Stand up, Moe, and show off your mom there.

Good job, Moe.

(APPLAUSE)

So, Moe didn’t make excuses. His mom had high expectations.

America needs more citizens like Mo. We need more young men like Christian. We will beat the odds.

We need to give every child, no matter what they look like, where they live, a chance to reach their full potential, because if we do, if we help these wonderful young men become better husbands and fathers and well-educated hard-working good citizens. Then, not only will they contribute to the growth and prosperity of this country, but they will pass the lessons on to their children, on to their grandchildren. We’ll start a different cycle. And this country will be richer and stronger for it for generations to come. So let’s get going.

Thank you. God bless you. God bless the United States of America.

This is the cover of Bruce Feiler’s new book, coming out in a few days.  I love his writing and he is giving us an excerpt here…check it out…and click on the book to find out more!americasprophet

For two years, I traveled to touchstones in American history and explored the role of the Bible, the Exodus, and Moses in inspiring generation after generation of Americans. I examined how American icons of different eras—from the slave girl Eliza carrying her son to freedom across the Ohio River in Uncle Tom’s Cabin to an orphaned Superman being drawn out of a spaceship from Krypton— were etched in the image of Moses. And I probed the ongoing role of Moses today, from the Ten Commandments in public places to the role of the United States as a beacon for immigrants. Even a cursory review of American history indicates that Moses has emboldened leaders of all stripes—patriot and loyalist, slave and master, Jew and Christian, fat cat and communist. Could the persistence of his story serve as a reminder of our shared national values? Could he serve as a unifying force in a disunifying time? If Moses could split the Red Sea, could he unsplit America?

Just as I was completing my journey, the 2008 presidential election was reaching its historic climax. Once again, Moses played a prominent role. Hillary Clinton compared herself to the Hebrew prophet. With “every bit of progress you try to make,” she said, “there’s always gonna be somebody to say, ‘You know, I think we should go back to Egypt.’” She asked, “Do we really need to move forward on transformative social change?” before answering: “Yes, we do.” Barack Obama also placed himself in the Mosaic tradition, though he claimed the role of Moses’ successor. “We are in the presence of a lot of Moseses,” he said in Selma, Alabama, in 2007. “I thank the Moses generation; but we’ve got to remember that Joshua still had a job to do. As great as Moses was . . . he didn’t cross over the river to see the Promised Land.” He concluded: “Today we’re called to be the Joshuas of our time, to be the generation that finds our way across this river.”

Obama’s use of the Exodus story became so prominent that his rival, John McCain, issued a video in which he mocked Obama for anointing himself “The One.” The video concluded with a clip of Charlton Heston splitting the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments. But the echoes of the Exodus only continued. On the day before the election, the African Methodist Episcopal Church bishop for Ohio stood up before 60,000 people in Columbus and thanked God for “having given us a Moses and a Martin called Barack Obama.” As civil rights pioneer Andrew Young said to me days later, “We are living in biblical time. The amount of time that passed between Martin’s assassination and Obama’s election—forty years—is the same amount of time the Israelites spent in the desert.”

file012

 

Prepared Remarks of President Barack Obama
Back to School Event

Arlington, Virginia
September 8, 2009
 

The President: Hello everyone – how’s everybody doing today? I’m here with students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia. And we’ve got students tuning in from all across America, kindergarten through twelfth grade. I’m glad you all could join us today. 

I know that for many of you, today is the first day of school. And for those of you in kindergarten, or starting middle or high school, it’s your first day in a new school, so it’s understandable if you’re a little nervous. I imagine there are some seniors out there who are feeling pretty good right now, with just one more year to go. And no matter what grade you’re in, some of you are probably wishing it were still summer, and you could’ve stayed in bed just a little longer this morning.

I know that feeling. 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.   

Now I wasn’t too happy about getting up that early. 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.”

So I know some of you are still adjusting to being back at school. But I’m here today because I have something important to discuss with you. I’m here because I want to talk with you about your education and what’s expected of all of you in this new school year. 

Now I’ve given a lot of speeches about education. And I’ve talked a lot about responsibility.

I’ve talked about your teachers’ responsibility for inspiring you, and pushing you to learn. 

I’ve talked about your parents’ responsibility for making sure you stay on track, and get your homework done, and don’t spend every waking hour in front of the TV or with that Xbox. 

I’ve talked a lot about your government’s responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren’t working where students aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve. 

But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed. 

And that’s what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself. 

Every single one of you has something you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That’s the opportunity an education can provide. 

Maybe you could be a good writer – maybe even good enough to write a book or articles in a newspaper – but you might not know it until you write a paper for your English class. Maybe you could be an innovator or an inventor – maybe even good enough to come up with the next iPhone or a new medicine or vaccine – but you might not know it until you do a project for your science class. Maybe you could be a mayor or a Senator or a Supreme Court Justice, but you might not know that until you join student government or the debate team.

And no matter what you want to do with your life – I guarantee that you’ll need an education to do it. You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You’re going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You can’t drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You’ve got to work for it and train for it and learn for it.

And this isn’t just important for your own life and your own future. What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future. 

You’ll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You’ll need the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You’ll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy. 

We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that – if you quit on school – you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country. 

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

I get it. I know what that’s like. My father left my family when I was two years old, and I was raised by a single mother who struggled at times to pay the bills and wasn’t always able to give us things the other kids had. There were times when I missed having a father in my life. There were times when I was lonely and felt like I didn’t fit in. 

So I wasn’t always as focused as I should have been. 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 I was fortunate. I got a lot of second chances and had the opportunity to go to college, and law school, and follow my dreams. My wife, our First Lady Michelle Obama, has a similar story. Neither of her parents had gone to college, and they didn’t have much. But they worked hard, and she worked hard, so that she could go to the best schools in this country.

Some of you might not have those advantages. Maybe you don’t have adults in your life who give you the support that you need. Maybe someone in your family has lost their job, and there’s not enough money to go around. Maybe you live in a neighborhood where you don’t feel safe, or have friends who are pressuring you to do things you know aren’t right. 

But at the end of the day, the circumstances of your life – what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you’ve got going on at home – that’s no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude. That’s no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That’s no excuse for not trying. 

Where you are right now doesn’t have to determine where you’ll end up. No one’s written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future. 

That’s what young people like you are doing every day, all across America. 

Young people like Jazmin Perez, from Roma, Texas. Jazmin didn’t speak English when she first started school. Hardly anyone in her hometown went to college, and neither of her parents had gone either. But she worked hard, earned good grades, got a scholarship to Brown University, and is now in graduate school, studying public health, on her way to being Dr. Jazmin Perez.

I’m thinking about Andoni Schultz, from Los Altos, California, who’s fought brain cancer since he was three. He’s endured all sorts of treatments and surgeries, one of which affected his memory, so it took him much longer – hundreds of extra hours – to do his schoolwork. But he never fell behind, and he’s headed to college this fall. 

And then there’s Shantell Steve, from my hometown of Chicago, Illinois. Even when bouncing from foster home to foster home in the toughest neighborhoods, she managed to get a job at a local health center; start a program to keep young people out of gangs; and she’s on track to graduate high school with honors and go on to college.

Jazmin, Andoni and Shantell aren’t any different from any of you. They faced challenges in their lives just like you do. But they refused to give up. They chose to take responsibility for their education and set goals for themselves. And I expect all of you to do the same. 

That’s why today, I’m calling on each of you to set your own goals for your education – and to do everything you can to meet them. Your goal can be something as simple as doing all your homework, paying attention in class, or spending time each day reading a book. Maybe you’ll decide to get involved in an extracurricular activity, or volunteer in your community. Maybe you’ll decide to stand up for kids who are being teased or bullied because of who they are or how they look, because you believe, like I do, that all kids deserve a safe environment to study and learn. Maybe you’ll decide to take better care of yourself so you can be more ready to learn. And along those lines, I hope you’ll all wash your hands a lot, and stay home from school when you don’t feel well, so we can keep people from getting the flu this fall and winter.

Whatever you resolve to do, I want you to commit to it. I want you to really work at it. 

I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work — that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things. 

But the truth is, being successful is hard. You won’t love every subject you study. You won’t click with every teacher. Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right this minute. And you won’t necessarily succeed at everything the first time you try.

That’s OK.  Some of the most successful people in the world are the ones who’ve had the most failures. JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected twelve times before it was finally published. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and he lost hundreds of games and missed thousands of shots during his career. But he once said, “I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” 

These people succeeded because they understand that you can’t let your failures define you – you have to let them teach you. You have to let them show you what to do differently next time. If you get in trouble, that doesn’t mean you’re a troublemaker, it means you need to try harder to behave. If you get a bad grade, that doesn’t mean you’re stupid, it just means you need to spend more time studying. 

No one’s born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work. You’re not a varsity athlete the first time you play a new sport. You don’t hit every note the first time you sing a song. You’ve got to practice. It’s the same with your schoolwork. You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right, or read something a few times before you understand it, or do a few drafts of a paper before it’s good enough to hand in. 

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don’t know something, and to learn something new. So find an adult you trust – a parent, grandparent or teacher; a coach or counselor – and ask them to help you stay on track to meet your goals. 

And even when you’re struggling, even when you’re discouraged, and you feel like other people have given up on you – don’t ever give up on yourself. Because when you give up on yourself, you give up on your country.

The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best. 

It’s the story of students who sat where you sit 250 years ago, and went on to wage a revolution and found this nation. Students who sat where you sit 75 years ago who overcame a Depression and won a world war; who fought for civil rights and put a man on the moon. Students who sat where you sit 20 years ago who founded Google, Twitter and Facebook and changed the way we communicate with each other.

So today, I want to ask you, what’s your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a president who comes here in twenty or fifty or one hundred years say about what all of you did for this country?  

Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need to answer these questions. I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn. But you’ve got to do your part too. So I expect you to get serious this year. I expect you to put your best effort into everything you do. I expect great things from each of you. So don’t let us down – don’t let your family or your country or yourself down. Make us all proud. I know you can do it.

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.

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Joan of Arc

I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory