It’s always inspiring for me, just to walk into a school at the beginning of the academic year. I see hope in freshly washed, gleaming gym floors and newly hung posters and banners. There is an excitement that is palpable. But on Wednesday, the students and teachers at Benjamin Banneker High School in Washington, D.C. were waiting to see President Barack Obama deliver his back-to-school speech to the nation.
The students’ nervous whispers hushed when Anita Berger, the school principal, took the mike – her voice powerful and charged – “Listen to his words,” she told her kids, “He is speaking directly to you!”
I wanted to hear those words too. All around this nation, teachers are worried that the efforts they make on behalf of kids aren’t publically appreciated. They hear harsh rhetoric which deflates their enthusiasm and makes it harder to work. Still, we love what we do because we believe it matters for the students in our class and for the future of our planet.
I wondered what President Obama would have to say to set this school year on the right course.
The President began to speak, flashing a wide smile. He urged the students to take challenging classes so that we could “race ahead as a nation.” He explained that it’s vital to wonder, question and “color outside of the lines.” The president then inspired us with stories about students who are doing research that may create new treatments for cancer, creating community service websites or raising money to offer loans to students from low-income schools. “The point is,” he said, “you don’t have to wait to make a difference.”
I watched the students’ faces light up as the President spoke. His words were really hitting home. He told them that even though it might all seem “a little intimidating,” they could count on “people all across this country — including myself and Arne [Duncan] and people at every level of government.”
But as a veteran teacher, with 32 years in the classroom, the President’s words mattered most when he said that it was the teachers, who “might be working harder than just about anybody these days” juggling home and school life, without the benefit of fancy perks or salaries. “They do it,” he said, “because nothing gives them more satisfaction than seeing you learn. They live for those moments when something clicks; when you amaze them with your intellect or your vocabulary, or they see what kind of person you’re becoming. And they’re proud of you.”
When the President left the gym, I felt like he had not only created a powerful message of aspiration and achievement for all America’s children, but he’d honored teachers everywhere. He let teachers know that he understands that they make sacrifices every day that go unnoticed.