In 1988, President Ronald Reagan told America's schoolchildren: “In the area of education you have a responsibility to try to learn and care about scientific and intellectual inquiry. The world is an increasingly competitive place. And if we're to compete, we'll have to do it with brainpower — your brainpower. So, keep learning and hit those books.”
In 1991, President George H.W. Bush told America's schoolchildren: “When it comes to your own education, what I'm saying is take control. Don't say school is boring and blame it on your teachers. Make your teachers work hard. Tell them you want a first-class education. Tell them that you're here to learn.”
Then, in 2009, President Barack Obama told America's schoolchildren: “We can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, the best schools in the world — and none of it will make a difference, none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities, unless you show up to those schools, unless you pay attention to those teachers, unless you listen to your parents and grandparents and other adults and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.”
These three presidents of the United States represent two different political parties, were born in three different states and grew up in three different generations. Yet they have clearly spoken the same message in practically the same language: aiming to inspire excellence and high goals in America's schoolchildren.
In short, children bring out the best in all of us.
Yet, that synonymous message, that unity of vision and compassion for our nation's children is what many of America's parents, pundits and politicians appeared to have missed last week as President Obama prepared to deliver his “National Address to America's Schoolchildren.” Acting to many as father in chief, his message no doubt affected the lives of thousands of children who might otherwise not have heard a message of hope to even get them past the first day.
But instead of welcoming this speech, the insatiable thirst for robust political debate and controversy seized the airways and obstructed the president's intentions to — like other presidents — simply inspire America's children to work hard and set goals. His expressed intent was squelched by allegations that he would spread so-called socialist views and politicize the minds of children.
It appears to have been the adults who simply failed to do their homework on this one. As a father — also with two daughters in elementary school — I'm the first to say that children can never be encouraged enough.
Even former first lady Laura Bush supported President Obama's speech to the nation's schoolchildren. Succinctly, she said, it is “really important for everyone to respect the president of the United States.”
Especially this month, Mrs. Bush's comments bring back clear memories of 9/11, and how on that tragic day, it was inside a classroom with students at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla., that President George W. Bush got the horrible message, “America is under attack.”
Before that moment, his visit to the school had been an uneventful, typical day of his presidency. There were no outcries from Democrats or Republicans in anticipation of what he would say. Neither were there such outcries when Reagan and the elder Bush prepared to speak years ago.
So, given that past presidents have imparted practically the same message to America's schoolchildren, what in this instance was different?
I acknowledge that there were some good excuses for arguing against the speech — the first day of school is a busy one, and that it would be held around lunchtime for some. But we would all be remiss if we ignored that it was the first message to schoolchildren from America's first black president who was the first to endure this parental and political scrutiny.
The vehement advance criticism of the speech, coupled with the political rancor of the days that followed, gives more evidence that perhaps race was indeed a glaring factor. The unprecedented outburst, “You lie!” from South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson during the president's health-care speech the very next evening underscores the climate of unique disrespect for this president by certain segments of American society.
If we as Americans are willing to acknowledge this truth, then there's a greater lesson for us all — children and adults alike. That lesson is that no matter how long children stay in school, how much goal-setting they do and no matter how many barriers they ultimately break, these disparate attacks on America's first black president reveal a social immaturity entrenched within our nation that will continue to destroy the very foundation on which we expect our children to stand. Children do what they see. And if this disrespect continues, the problem of the 21st century, as stated by W.E.B. Du Bois, only will continue to be “the color line.” S
Terone B. Green is a former president of the Richmond Crusade for Voters, past board chairman of the Richmond Urban League and a member of the Richmond Business Council.
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