By Curt Yeomans
For 20 minutes on Tuesday, students in Niomi Henry's American government class at Jonesboro High School sat in silence as President Barack Obama discussed the importance of education and staying in school.
During a televised speech, broadcast from Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va., Obama told school children across the country that it's time they take responsibility for their education. The speech was billed as a back-to-school event by the White House because many school systems around the country began the 2009-2010 school year on Tuesday.
During his address, the president told the nation's students that the skills they learn in school will be critical to how the country addresses issues such as AIDS, cancer, energy, the environment and poverty.
"What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country," Obama said. "What you're learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future ... 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," he added.
Different passages from the speech resonated with the Jonesboro students, ranging from messages about failure to comments on the impact of a person's education on the future of the national economy.
Sierra Whitfield, 17, a senior at Jonesboro High School, said she was intrigued by the president's message that it is OK to fail at something on occasion. Obama told students that perfection should not be expected on the first try, and that failure should be used as a learning tool, and as motivation to work hard in the future.
"The message I took away from it is ... failure makes you stronger in the future," Whitfield said.
Obama told the students their personal lives also could not be used as excuses for not doing well in school. He cited three examples of students, from Texas, California and Illinois, who overcame obstacles such as language barriers, brain cancer and living in foster homes, to pursue their education.
"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," Obama said. "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."
Jonesboro senior, William Ibarrondo, 17, said the speech resonated with him. He said he gleaned from the speech the impact his education can have on the future of the nation, and that success never comes easily to a person.
"He said we are the future of our nation, so we really have to do what we can because the kids right now - we're basically raising our next president, and our next Congress," Ibarrondo said. "Everybody is looking for an easy way out, or the easy way to success these days. It's not going to work, because it takes hard work to achieve success and accomplish your goals."
Another senior, James Smoot, 17, said he realized his level of education will impact his job prospects in the future.
"Even people with an education are having a hard time finding a job now," Smoot said. "If you don't have it, it's even worse. You don't have a chance. I definitely see having an education as a boost to my future job prospects."
As a homework assignment, instructor Henry told the students they had to interview two people about what they thought of the speech. During a discussion after the speech, the teacher and her students talked about what they thought of it.
"I think younger students [in elementary and middle school] probably understood what he was saying, but it made more sense to the older students, especially the seniors, because they are closer to being in the real world," Henry said.
In the week leading up to Obama's address, there was debate over whether the president should make the speech to school children. Critics across the country argued the president would not stick to the issue of education and would use the opportunity for political purposes.
Because of the controversy surrounding the speech, Clayton County parents had the option of sending a letter to school with their children on Tuesday asking for an alternative activity. The letters were to be turned in to each school's principal Tuesday morning.
Clayton County Schools Spokesman Charles White said information on the number of students whose parents took that option was not immediately available Tuesday afternoon.
At Jonesboro High School, Principal Carl Jackson said he did not know of any students at his school whose parents sent an opt-out letter.
After the speech, Ibarrondo said he did not see anything controversial about it.
"He was persuading people to work hard, rather than looking for the easy path to success that is rarely there," Ibarrondo said. "A lot of the stuff that was said [against the speech] seemed like it was more in spite of the president, instead of the actual topic."
A video of the speech was available on the White House web site Tuesday afternoon.
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The White House: www.whitehouse.gov