ARLINGTON, Va. – In a pep talk that kept clear of politics, President Barack Obama on Tuesday challenged the nation's students to take pride in their education — and stick with it even if they don't like every class or must overcome tough circumstances at home.
"Every single one of you has something that you're good at. Every single one of you has something to offer," Obama told students at Wakefield High School in suburban Arlington, Va., and children watching his speech on television in schools across the country. "And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is."
Presidents often visit schools, and Obama was not the first one to offer a back-to-school address aimed at millions of students in every grade.
Yet this one was doused with controversy from the beginning, as several conservative organizations and many concerned parents warned Obama was trying to sell his political agenda. That concern was caused in part by an accompanying administration lesson plan encouraging students to "help the president," which the White House later revised and Education Secretary Arne Duncan acknowledged Tuesday was wrongheaded.
School districts in some areas decided not to provide their students access to his midday speech.
Upon arrival at the school, Obama's motorcade was greeted by a small band of protesters. One carried a sign exclaiming: "Mr. President, stay away from our kids."
Obama didn't mention the uproar.
He preceded his broad-scale talk by meeting with about 40 Wakefield students in a school library, where at one point he advised them to "be careful what you post on Facebook. Whatever you do, it will be pulled up again later somewhere in your life."
"When I was your age," Obama said, "I was a little bit of a goof-off. My main goal was to get on the varsity basketball team and have fun."
One young person asked why the country doesn't have universal health insurance. "I think we need it. I think we can do it," Obama replied. The president said the country can afford to insure all Americans and that doing so will save money in the long run.
He also told the group that not having a father at home "forced me to grow up faster."
Asked to name one person — dead or alive — he would choose to dine with, Obama said inspirational leader Mohandas K. Gandhi.
"He's somebody I find a lot of inspiration in. He inspired Dr. (Martin Luther) King with his message of nonviolence," Obama said. "He ended up doing so much and changed the world just by the power of his ethics."
The White House released the text of his speech a day early so school officials and parents could evaluate it before it was delivered. Obama gave it virtually unchanged, and it was carried live on ESPN and the White House Web site.
"There is no excuse for not trying" he said. "The truth is, being successful is hard. You won't love every subject that you study. You won't click with every teacher that you have."
The school he chose as the setting for his talk — Wakefield — is the most economically and racially diverse school in Arlington County, according to the Department of Education. Nearly 40 percent of graduating seniors pass an Advanced Placement test. That's more than twice the national average.