Fear and Loathing in the Classroom

September 15th, 2010 · No Comments · Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

My disappointment in the Albuquerque Journal’s editorial page on Tuesday was great, not so much for what the editors weighed in on opinion-wise but rather for what they ignored.

How could they not step up and criticize Albuquerque Public Schools’ lack of spine in once again allowing the characterization of the president’s back-to-school talk for schoolchildren as something to be feared, something from which children should be “protected?” How could the Journal not question why a defensive policy was put in place before the talk? And why didn’t they question the superintendent and take names on who had held such sway as to make the talk “controversial?”

The Journal on Saturday announced on an inside page (D2) that President Barack Obama would be “reprising last year’s controversial back-to-school speech” (the reporter’s phrase). And the story, “President’s Speech Optional for Students,” reported that Albuquerque Public Schools had “a plan in place” in anticipation of the speech:

In a letter sent to principals Friday, Superintendent Winston Brooks said individual teachers will decide whether to show the speech in class. If students don’t want to watch it, they can go to a different classroom or an alternative, supervised activity.

The schools had a “plan in place” as if they expecting a threat, rather than a talk from the nation’s top elected leader. And the Journal did not question this on its editorial page.

Imagine how this likely would be interpreted by the children. If students find the president’s words inspiring or reassuring, might they not be confused and wonder why some students were sent out of the room? Would that not leave the impression there was something wrong with the president, his words, or both?

(Does anyone really think child protection is the point of this controversy?)

The president, in fact, addressed the nation’s schoolchildren as important young Americans who have a role to play in the nation’s future.  Speaking at Masterman School in Philadelphia, in a speech broadcast around the nation, the president said, in part:

Nobody gets to write your destiny but you. Your future is in your hands. Your life is what you make of it. And nothing — absolutely nothing — is beyond your reach, so long as you’re willing to dream big, so long as you’re willing to work hard. So long as you’re willing to stay focused on your education, there is not a single thing that any of you cannot accomplish, not a single thing. I believe that.

He elicited laughter from the children when he continued by saying:

. . . I’m sure there are going to be times in the months ahead when you’re staying up late doing your homework or cramming for a test, or you’re dragging yourself out of bed on a rainy morning and you’re thinking, oh, boy, I wish maybe it was a snow day. (Laughter.)

But let me tell you, what you’re doing is worth it. There is nothing more important than what you’re doing right now. Nothing is going to have as great an impact on your success in life as your education, how you’re doing in school.

The content of the president’s talk was released to the media – and to the nation’s superintendents – before it was delivered on Tuesday.

More and more, the kinds of opportunities that are open to you are going to be determined by how far you go in school. The farther you go in school, the farther you’re going to go in life. And at a time when other countries are competing with us like never before, when students around the world in Beijing, China, or Bangalore, India, are working harder than ever, and doing better than ever, your success in school is not just going to determine your success, it’s going to determine America’s success in the 21st century. . . .

It is shameful that some students might have been deprived of this talk that encouraged children by saying:

… just because you’re not the best at something today doesn’t mean you can’t be tomorrow. Even if you don’t think of yourself as a math person or a science person, you can still excel in those subjects if you’re willing to make the effort. And you may find out you have talents you never dreamed of. . . .

Don’t feel discouraged; don’t give up if you don’t succeed at something the first time. Try again, and learn from your mistakes. Don’t feel threatened if your friends are doing well; be proud of them, and see what lessons you can draw from what they’re doing right.

It is shameful that some students might have been unable to hear the president acknowledge tough economic times, the stresses placed on families and the presence of bullies.

If you take away one thing from my speech, I want you to take away the notion that life is precious, and part of what makes it so wonderful is its diversity, that all of us are different. And we shouldn’t be embarrassed by the things that make us different. We should be proud of them, because it’s the thing that makes us different that makes us who we are, that makes us unique.

And the strength and character of this country has always come from our ability to recognize — no matter who we are, no matter where we come from, no matter what we look like, no matter what abilities we have — to recognize ourselves in each other.

It is shameful that some students might not have been able to receive the president’s praise when he concluded that:

. . .my main message to all of you here today: I couldn’t be prouder of you. Keep it up. All of you I know are going to do great things in the future. And maybe some time in the 21st century, it’s going to be one of you that’s standing up here speaking to a group of kids as President of the United States.

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

This wasn’t a sex talk featuring a condom and a banana, or a Channel One Pepsi ad featuring a sexy model coming on to an 8-year-old (which was a legitimate controversy about seven years ago).

Yet the president’s message was treated as if it was something to be shunned or feared.

There is something fundamentally wrong with this country if a presidential talk that stresses the importance of education and appeals to a young person’s potential is  equivalent to some sort of “indoctrination.” Parents, teachers and school officials in unison would have made sure students heard the words of the sitting president when I was a child in school.

Those today who choose to characterize this president’s message as indoctrination are undermining not only this particular presidency but future presidencies by teaching children disrespect for the office. What happened to patriotism, respect for the nation and respect for the flag?

The Journal’s story Saturday concluded that “opposition to the speech has been muted this year.” Why then, did schools react – in advance – as if there was vehement opposition? And why didn’t the Journal call them on it in an editorial?

There’s shame enough to go around on this one.

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