A missed opportunity

Thursday, September 17, 2009

It's been a week since President Obama gave a back-to-school speech that was broadcast live from Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va., and I'm still trying to figure out what was so controversial about the speech that parents felt the need to keep their children home from school rather than hear the president speak. That decision was not one that parents had to make locally, because area districts chose not to broadcast the speech live last Tuesday. I have read the speech and found it inspiring and devoid of any political rhetoric or agenda. In essence, the president's back-to-school message was really just a pep talk.

There's no doubt that politics play a huge role in the election process, but once a president is elected, he is president of the entire United States not just the president of the Democrats or Republicans. His office demands respect regardless of a person's political persuasion, and I think it is important for our children to understand that. As parents, one of the foundational truths Mike and I taught our sons was to respect authority. Both my boys had rebellious streaks and weren't ones to follow the crowd, and while we let them explore their individuality, we never condoned disrespect for the authority figures in their lives, which included their parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, administrators and law enforcement authorities.

This respect for authority extends to those elected to political office, especially the president. This isn't to say we always agree with every action a president has taken. In fact, we have taught our boys through our own example that the actions of elected officials are to be questioned. This is the nature of a democracy, but there are also times when the president is acting as the head of state, in a nonpolitical manner, and it is at those times when his position demands our respect. And I believe, the back-to-school speech was one of those times.

School is where we teach children how to learn, and one of the things students learn is how to make decisions, how to form opinions and how to be critical thinkers. The president's speech had the potential to provide a positive teaching tool for our students, and I could see it being used to spark classroom discussions about government, citizenship and politics, not to mention, the themes of working hard, taking responsibility and staying in school. Parents could also have read or listened to the speech and discussed its content with their children during an evening meal. You may not like the messenger, but I think few can argue with the message itself.

And interestingly enough, those parents who chose to keep their children home from school when the president spoke, just might have made the president's words even more tantalizing. It's kind of like the Judy Blume book "Forever" that circulated through middle school during the 70s. Our teachers and parents didn't want us reading it, and as a result, every girl in my class had read the book by the end of seventh grade. The themes of the book were probably ones that we needed to be discussing with our parents rather than our peers, but because some of the parents and school authorities made the book off limits, those teachable moments were lost.

I'm not saying everything is appropriate for children's consumption, and I believe parents always have the right and obligation to monitor what their children are reading, listening to and visiting on-line, but before we make decisions like keeping our children home from school so they won't be exposed to the president's speech, I think parents need to do their own homework. The president released the contents of his speech prior to last Tuesday's address, and those who read the speech quickly realized it was motivational in nature rather than ideological or political. There was nothing objectionable in the speech, and I believe respect for the office of president should have trumped political conviction in this circumstance.

I'm sure this editorial will prompt some letters to the editor, and that's just fine with me. We do live in a democracy, and everyone is welcome to express their opinion freely. The president's speech is just another opportunity for open public discussion.

And just in case there are some of our readers who didn't listen to the speech or read it, here's a few of the high points. The president encouraged students to show up to school, pay attention to their teachers, listen to their parents and put in the hard work it takes to succeed. He also urged students to find out what they're good at and then pursue educational goals that will develop those talents, skills and abilities. President Obama also challenged students to not be defined by their failures and not give up on themselves. And to quote the president directly, "I expect you to get serious this year. I expect you to put your best effort into everything you do. I expect great things from each of you. So don't let us down -- don't let your family or your country or yourself down. Make us all proud. I know you can do it. Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America."

Lisa Schlichtman