I held my young friends in my heart as I listened to President Obama’s speech to students the other day. I absorbed his message on their behalf and vowed to watch for opportunities to help kids who have trouble finding their way.
I really liked the speech. Not because I generally like the president, but because of the substance of his message. He said things caring adults say to kids every day, but he said them with the gravitas of his office, with the dignity of his character and with the poetry of his words. Additionally, he might have been able to get through to kids who literally never hear positive messages from parents, kids who have few if any caring adults in their lives.
Here’s my condensation of what he said: No matter what you do when you're older, you will need an education. Develop your talents and your intellect. The challenges you face are no excuse for not trying. No one has written your destiny for you; here in America, you write your own destiny. Don’t let your failures define you; let them teach you. Being successful is hard. You become good at things through hard work. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. Get serious about your education; make goals and do everything you can to meet them. Don't let yourself down.
I tried to place a moment in my own growing up when a president of the United States took the kind of interest in me and my peers that President Obama showed in today’s school-age kids. I can't recall the presidents of my K-12 years (Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter) ever speaking to me about my education.
Back then, if a president wanted to address the nation's students, and were it technologically possible, we would have been made to sit politely and listen to what the man had to say, no matter which one of those four very disparate fellows it was.
I don't want to romanticize those years. They were at least as full of turmoil as the present. Still, I worry we have finally lost our decency. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes a speech to children about their education is nothing more than that, whether it’s given by Barack Obama or George Herbert Walker Bush.
It’s fine to think your team is the coolest team on the field. It's fine to think you’re the most moral folks around even when your team gives overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
When one guy on your team yells out. "You lie” to a president of the United States who is telling the truth in what many Americans try to think of as a very dignified and hallowed chamber, your team's smart guys are being overshadowed by fools. Likewise when someone on your team, perhaps the head of a school district, perhaps a parent, forbids students from benefiting from a positive message about education.
I understand turning a blind eye to your own hypocrisies and shortcomings; I do it myself all the time. But really. That's breathtaking stupidity.
The good news is, breathtaking stupidity has its place. It’s not lost on schoolkids. They’re savvy enough to know a dumb guy when they see one and I think they can see President Obama’s message for the genuinely wise and caring speech that it was, even if they have to watch it on YouTube because some hysterical loon kept them from seeing it at school.
In the end of the brouhaha, Obama’s unspoken and unintended message for schoolkids might be this: Never stop working on your education because intelligence is the best revenge.
Barb Guy is a regular contributor to these pages.