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Wakefield Welcomes Obama Back to School Speech Despite Initial Controversy

Shantella Y. Sherman | 9/10/2009, 9:15 a.m.

Despite criticism and accusations from opponents that President Barack Obama€s speech to America€s students would amount to socialist brainwashing, the 20-minute nationally televised speech from Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va. proved successful.

Obama stressed the importance of overcoming personal hardships and difficulty with subjects and teachers, to succeed in both school and life. He spoke of his own upbringing without his father in the home and his not feeling popular or comfortable at school, saying giving up on oneself is the same as giving up on one€s country.

€There is no excuse for not trying. I, your parents and your teachers are doing everything they can to ensure that you succeed, but ultimately you are responsible for your education. At times it will not be easy, but whatever you resolve to do, I want you to commit to it,€ Obama said.

Doris Jackson, principal at Wakefield, said that the pre-event controversy had done little to dissipate student and faculty excitement at the Arlington-based school.

€We are Wakefield and that means a great deal. We welcome the President of the United States and are honored that he chose our school to promote high scholastics,€ Jackson said.

Jackson encouraged students before the President arrived to set aside the natural inclination to record the President€s speech using cell phone cameras and tape recorders, and instead capture the moment as memory in their minds.

€You will be telling this story today and tomorrow, but you will also be telling this story for years to come, so please, take time to experience it entirely,€ Jackson said.

Carmellita Turner, English 11 and Reading teacher at Wakefield, said that the controversy surrounding Obama€s visit never reached the corridors of the school. Students and faculty said they were honored to have had their school selected by the President.
Christine Romer, chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisors, responds to questions from student at School Without Walls, in Northwest,following President Barack Obama€s speech on education on Tue., Sept. 8. Students€ questions covered a broad range of issues related to U.S. domestic and international policy issues. Photo by Roy Lewis
€As a teacher, I teach Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike. We are here to educate our future leaders and the teachers at Wakefield [and] respect their views as global citizens,€ Turner said.

Among the anxious visitors in the crowd were Dawn Willard, mother of Timothy Spicer, Wakefield Senior Class President, who delivered the President€s welcome address. Flanked by a host of relatives, Willard said that she could not be more proud of her son.

€As his Mom, I have been more overwhelmed by this than Timothy has. I just keep thinking that a week ago we were on vacation and today my son is introducing the President of the United States to the rest of the world,€ Willard said.

Across the Potomac in the District of Columbia, students at School Without Walls in Northwest watched the speech via satellite. Principal Richard Trogisch said there were no complaints from parents or students about the speech.

€Everyone was enthusiastic and supportive. But they hear that speech everyday from me. €You€re going to work and learn and everyone€s going to college,€€ Trogisch said.

Presidential visits to schools on the first day of classes are not uncommon. However, this year€s message became entangled in conservative posturing that Obama€s speech would support a socialist agenda. Obama€s original speech included instructions for students to write The White House and €help the President,€ causing Obama opponents to weigh in that such help constituted €overstepping his authority.€

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who attended the Wakefield event, said that original materials could have been misconstrued as €wrongheaded,€ so his team gladly removed the lesson plan from the packets. The White House later released the entire speech to the media days before the event to stall rumblings of agenda baiting.

For Molly Sloss, 17, a senior at the School Without Walls, Obama€s speech left a lasting impression on her about how much the President cared about young people.

€It made a statement that he was willing to come out and be such a father figure to everyone. I€ve been lucky enough to hear that for a really long time, but I know other kids who haven€t had someone tell them all the things that President Obama said today. It was really personal and I was really amazed and struck by how much he cared,€ Sloss said.

Staff Writer Norma Porter contributed to this article.