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That should be the refrain of every underachieving, school age child in America who heard or even knows about the president’s back to school speech. No political agendas to be had in the text of president Obama’s school speech, but that doesn’t mean it was without issues fraught with worry, as the president’s meant to be inspirational, speech took on the tone of an insensitive, ill-timed lecture. He on one hand said he understands the challenges facing students, that they may have things in their life that make it hard to focus on school, understanding that some may not have the advantages of caring adults, while on the other saying that there is no excuse for neglecting homework, having a bad attitude, talking back to a teacher, cutting class or dropping out of school, no excuse for not trying. But does he really understand, that there may not be excuses, but there are reasons? Perhaps he should say that to the child featured in a 20/20 special whose family lived in a hotel and he is facing the wall trying to do his homework with little bothers and sisters clamoring around him, or the young man in high school who worked a fast food job to help support his large family where mom had left and dad was on disability, working from 5-10, then coming home to do homework. How about the increasingly demanding homework the requires either internet access or word processing, yet there are no computers in the home and the child must take the bus home because parents work, maybe even hours past what the local library is open, or the parent has no vehicle to take the child to the library, or no money for gas to take such a trip; how about if a high school aged kid works past library closing time and not working is not an option? What about the little kindergartener that came to school this year with no school supplies or with only part of his supplies, who would try or try more if only they had the supplies to do so? But judging by the speech, the president thinks the biggest challenges to kids doing homework are TV and X box.

Does this president really understand that it is a victory that some kids managed to make it to school on any given day, between caring for disabled parents, getting brothers and sisters fed, washed, bathed and dressed before catching the school bus, kids who wake up in homes with shaky electricity and no hot water, who may not have a functioning alarm clock? I guess he didn’t see the Oprah special entitled kids in charge. He probably also didn’t take into account the number of abused kids who don’t know if they are going to wake up being hit, starved, thrown down stairs; he should read the book A Child Called “It.” One thing this president certainly doesn’t understand, evident by his lumping in bad attitudes and talking back to teachers into his no excuses list, is that decline in school performance is what happens when children’s lives are in turmoil; it is a kind of social law of gravity, better managed with compassion, empathy and intervention programs not great oratory’s version of tough love. Some of the talking back may have to do with a missing homework assignment mentally ill mom tore up, threw out, or alcoholic dad spilt beer on; other issues may be teacher asks student to write papers about family history or that require students to ask parents questions about life when they were growing up, and so on, but all this child has is cold, aloof foster parents or none at all, as they live in a group home. Other students the parents may not have had the money to buy the supplies to do the assignment. In all these cases students are too ashamed and embarrassed to let their teachers or peers know what happens in their home, what happened to their homework or why they can’t do an assignment, so they “talk back”. It also is a sign of a stressed out, overwrought kid who needs help to do better in school and have a better life.

Then came the set goals section of the speech giving examples as “simple” as paying more attention in class, reading a book or joining extracurricular activities, community volunteering. However joining student government, something mentioned earlier in the speech, volunteering and extracurricular activity involvement is more complicated than it appears, when students lack the transportation to participate in such activities because their parents work, they have to watch younger siblings or parents are too exhausted to consistently take their child to and from even one such activity. In high school, there are elective courses that state in the description it takes time before and/or after school to be successful in the class. There are students that would love to join drama club, art club, writing club, science club, but can’t; smart, college bound high school kids who know the positive message volunteering for self, community and on college applications, but without access to them cannot participate. Some parents prefer their child focus all of their efforts on school and do not allow after school activities; others in the hastiness of life are too busy or don’t understand the importance of said activities for college or self-growth. Reading more books may be difficult without access to a local library or living in an unstable home where school library materials could be damaged or destroyed; students may have outstanding fines for something dad tore up in a rage or little sister spilt milk on and can’t check out more books until it is paid. It’s a little difficult to pay attention in class if you are worried about whether you’ll get food that night, how much longer you’ll have a home, if mom with be passed out or in a rage, dad drunk or high; it’s more than a little difficult for children to focus on the war of 1812 or multiplication tables when they are thinking about the drive by that happened down the street, the missing child next door, when they’re afraid to go home to the father who raped them the night before or the neighbor they go to after school, who put his hand down their pants. What about the child who worries about a sick parent while at school; this is the reality children deal with. You can’t think about tomorrow, junior high, high school, college, dreams, careers when your goal has to be surviving another day.

Even putting those giant hurdles aside, too many, the president included, are under the impression school children would and did buy into it, children in junior high and high school who have college educated parents on their second or third degree, their third or fourth career and still barely make ends meet. Others know their parents can’t afford college, know they are not good enough to gain a scholarship or not a significant enough scholarship to guarantee educational opportunities beyond high school, while even more understand there are only so many slots available and know their odds of not being one of the lucky ones. We are talking about students today who view the same news we do, notice the same trends we do, who know of older siblings, friends of siblings who went to college only to end up sacking groceries or flipping burgers; anyone with the smallest amount of intelligence is going to then ask, what’s the point? As a student who worked hard before it was cool, who did well in school without a president of the United States asking me to, then took advantage of opportunities to further my education and doesn’t even have sustainability to show for it, I want to ask this president to think about his shining examples pointed to in his speech; I want to know what he will say to the young lady who was bounced around foster homes, will graduate high school with honors, when she doesn’t get into medical school, or can’t pay for it, when after 4 years of undergraduate schooling she has to rethink her whole life. I want to know what he would say to the young man who battled brain cancer and memory issues spending countless extra hours on schoolwork, never falling behind when he gets out of college, assuming his condition allows him to graduate, looks around and asks: where are the opportunities? More importantly, will this young man still think that hard work, responsibility and goal setting are the keys to life, sadly probably not? What will President Obama say to him in 4 years if he is reelected or as a former president? What he certainly won’t tell us now is all of these less successful outcomes are also possibilities.

I want our president to picture the kid who does everything right who takes all the college track classes, participates in extracurricular activities of interest, then when it comes time to apply to colleges and scholarships they watch all of their friends and the group of people they’ve known since grade school all get half, three fourths, and full ride scholarships; they get nothing. So while their friends are working summer jobs and work study for spending money, dorm furnishings and a fraction of their tuition, they have to work 3 jobs just to pay for tuition, books, housing, simply because their weren’t enough scholarship slots. Next year they apply earlier, do more activities to make them desirable, same thing; when it comes time to find internships and job openings, they are passed over for someone with worse grades and half the talent, not once but several times. This can have one of two outcomes; either this young person is now useless in their degree field and ends up working minimum wage, possibly on welfare, or by the time they attend their high school reunion they have a middle management job barely making ends meet. In contrast, their peers are at the top of the corporate ladder, or as far as they wish to climb; some have their dream career where the pay is marginal but it’s fulfilling, some became famous or well known. And here is this person once so full of promise once so full of dreams, just existing. I want our president to think about this kid and find a solution for them too. I want him to think about all the kids whose response to the speech was a feeling like he was speaking directly to them; I want him to think about the children who listened to him, who will take his advice and fail in spite of it, in spite of doing it right. Why, because this is the plight of the current generation; why, because doing it right, working hard and setting goals no longer cuts it.

If president Obama really wanted to do something for the school children of America he would start by closing the gap between school and work, focusing on putting an end to ridiculous employer practices of judging and disqualifying candidates on the condition of their teeth, their normal walking gate, their glasses or benign things posted on MySpace, use of behavioral and psychological analysis to scrutinize hand writing, all in an effort to find a reason not to hire someone. He would push for working relationships between colleges and businesses in all communities to create the internships that will give the experience needed to insure the degrees earned do not become worthless pieces of paper. Also he would fight for expansion of existing as well as creation of new grant and scholarship programs, make sure that the Pell grant covered all of tuition and books for eligible students. All of these things making sure that one- an education means something and two- that more students have a chance not only to go to college but finish.

Further if the president truly wished to insure this nation’s educational future, not only would he fix schools that are literally falling apart, provide them with the textbooks and technology needed to succeed, but he would have done that first rather than make a kid who can’t afford school supplies feel like they failed their country along with themselves. At the same time he would battle to reduce class sizes, particularly in primary grades, so that students learn the essentials that will carry them throughout both school and life. This would likewise free up teachers who have become everything from defacto parents to social workers to be inquisitive about the kid whose grades suddenly drop, who suddenly becomes disrespectful or is suddenly distracted. And lastly, he would make sure schools have the resources for counseling and intervention programs to help those who need it; in fact he would have done all of these things before lecturing students on their responsibility, focusing on the mechanisms that must be available for success rather than making a kid feel like they shamed their country and themselves because their home life is next to unbearable and they can’t cope. Perhaps the reason no president has spoken to our nations school children in eighteen years is because prior presidents understood, until we fix those things no matter how much we lecture them, entice the, inspire them, kids won’t succeed.

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About Natasha Sapp

Proclaiming an edgy voice of reason to America,while bringing back the common sense to social issues.

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