What Obama Can Mean in the Classroom

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With the controversy over President Barack Obama’s speech to school kids melting—how much outrage can rightwingers maintain over an address that encourages kids to work hard and not be put off by failure?—I’m reminded of a story I heard a few days after Obama was elected president.

A father I met at a party told me about his daughter, a teacher at a Maryland public high school in a low-income area. Most of her students were African Americans. Her classroom was often an unruly place, and she had to pick carefully what battles to wage, when it came to imposing order and discipline. For instance, she had long ago given up forcing her students to quiet down and pay attention during each morning’s school-wide recital of the Pledge of Allegiance.

But the morning after the country had elected a black man president, her classroom was different. Once Pledge time arrived, her students, without any prodding from her, became calm and respectfully and somberly said the words that they usually ignored each day.

Clearly, Obama can be the sort of model for children and young adults that previous presidents could not be. He can especially be a powerful example for young people in disenfranchised and disadvantaged communities. And this seems to have really ticked off conservatives eager to portray any Obama move as an underhanded socialist plot. But today I’ll be thinking about those students in that one Maryland classroom and hoping that Obama’s words—as obvious as they might be—will register with several of them and encourage these students to believe that they can have a stake and a future in the system—and a say in whether there really is liberty and justice for all.

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