REMARKS BY THE FIRST LADY AT REACH HIGHER “PREP” RALLY at Booker T. Washington High School, Atlanta, Georgia

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THE WHITE HOUSE

 

Office of the First Lady

_________________________________________________________________

September 8, 2014

 

 

REMARKS BY THE FIRST LADY

AT REACH HIGHER “PREP” RALLY

 

Booker T. Washington High School

Atlanta, Georgia

 

2:07 P.M. EDT

 

MRS. OBAMA:  Hey!  (Applause.)  What’s going on?  Okay, they’re trying to make me dance some more.  I’m not going to dance anymore.  (Laughter.)  I can only dance because my children aren’t here.  When I dance with them, I’m embarrassing to them.  (Laughter.)  How are you guys doing?  (Applause.)  Oh, my goodness!  I am so thrilled to be here in Atlanta with all of you.  Let’s go, Bulldogs!  (Applause.)  You guys feeling good?  (Applause.)  I am, too.

 

Let me start — I want to start by thanking a few people first.  I want to start by thanking Alexandria for that very wonderful introduction.  She did a good job, didn’t she?  (Applause.)  And your classmate Tauja, as well, for her remarks.  She introduced Secretary Duncan — she did a great job.  (Applause.)

 

And we’ve got Sway Calloway here from MTV, he’s backstage.  (Applause.)  I don’t know if you’ve met our Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Julian Castro, he’s here.  (Applause.)  And your First Lady of Georgia is here, Mrs. Sandra Deal, who has been doing some phenomenal work in education.  (Applause.)  I am so grateful to her for the work she’s doing on behalf of the children of this state.  Thank you for taking the time.

 

We also have Mrs. Sarah-Elizabeth Reed, the First Lady of your city of Atlanta, who is here as well.  (Applause.)  And of course, Secretary Duncan, who is my partner in crime.  I couldn’t be more excited to be here to help Secretary Duncan kick off his back-to-school bus tour.  And when we were thinking about where to go for the kickoff, we thought we’d come to Booker T. Washington High School because — (applause) — yes — we heard you all are doing some pretty good things — yes, you’re excited, pretty excited.  (Laughter.)  But we heard you all are doing some great things here for all the students — and I also heard you all could make a little noise, too.  So that helps.

 

Now, I know you all have been back at school for a few weeks now, right?  You’re settling into the routine, right?

 

STUDENTS:  Yes.

 

MRS. OBAMA:  Classes, activities, team practices, band practice, right?  You guys are all into that.  (Applause.)  You’ve had a few games.  Is your football team playing?  (Applause.)  You guys having a good season?

 

STUDENTS:  No!

 

MRS. OBAMA:  Oh, well, nevermind.  (Laughter.)  But you’ve got heart!  You’ve got spirit!  (Applause.)  You’re probably getting a lot more homework; maybe you’re starting to have your first quizzes and your paper is already due, right?

 

Well, I’m here today because all of that that I just mentioned -– all those tests, all the papers, the extracurricular activities –- here — and I want you all to listen to this — all of that stuff isn’t just important to get you through the day or even this year.  Everything you are doing in school right now is critical to the rest of your life.

 

That’s why I’m here — because I want you all to succeed.  And I want you to understand how people like me go from being kids like you to standing here as First Lady of the United States.  (Applause.)  That’s my message to all of you and to all the students across the country who may be watching this today –that your time in school is extremely important.  And what you do here each and every day will set you up to achieve so many of the dreams that I know you have for yourselves in the years ahead.

 

You have to understand that completing high school is not the end but the beginning of your life’s journey.  It’s just the beginning.  In today’s world, in order to compete in an ever-globalizing economy, you’ve got to continue your education after you graduate from high school.  And fortunately, there are many paths that you can take –- whether that’s a professional training program, a four-year school like Georgia State or Emory or Clark Atlanta, or a community college like Atlanta Metro State College.

But no matter where you go, the important thing is that you go somewhere.  Because no matter who you are or where you come from, higher education is absolutely the best way you can take charge of your future.  And there’s a lot you need to be doing right now to prepare yourself for those next steps.

 

And that’s why this isn’t just any ordinary pep rally, this is why we’re calling this a prep rally — you get it?  It’s a prep rally.  Because if you want to succeed in the years ahead, you’ve got to know how to prepare yourself today, and you’ve got to know how to rally when you get knocked down along the way — because it’s going to happen.  And that’s what we’re going to talk about.

 

So first, the prep part.  And one of the reasons why we’re here at Washington High is because you all already have a great head start.  You have got teachers and counselors who are doing everything they can to help you get to college.  Your school offers classes that give you college credit.  And you’ve got access to special programs that will prepare you for careers in health sciences, business, finance.

 

So the first thing that you can do to prepare yourself for the future is to take advantage of all the resources that are right here for you.  And to do that, you have to show up to school every day.  Yes, attendance matters.  You are not going to learn or get the support that you need if you’re not here.  And then once you’re here, you have to completely commit to learning all that you can –- in other words, when you’re here, you have to challenge yourself.  You just can’t — you can’t be hanging out.  You can’t just coast through.  You can’t just take the easy classes.  You’ve got to stretch yourself.

 

Because here’s the thing — studies show that when you’re working hard and stretching yourself, when you’re struggling to solve a problem or read a book or write an essay, you’re actually making new connections in your brain.  The brain is just like a muscle — it needs exercise.  And remember — I want you all to remember, nobody is born smart.  You become smart by thinking hard and challenging yourself.  And that’s how you’re going to prepare your brain not just for college, but for the rest of the challenges that you’re going to face in life.

 

And that doesn’t happen right away.  It takes time, it takes effort, it takes planning — and let me tell you, it takes a whole lot of courage.  And I know this from my own experience.

 

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago.  Neither of my parents went to college.  But I set a goal for myself:  I wanted to go to Princeton University.  So I sketched out a plan to get there –- which classes I needed to take, when I needed to take my SATs, when I needed to apply for financial aid.  And I worked incredibly hard to execute that plan.

 

My school was halfway across the city, so I had to get up at 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning just to get to school, to study in the morning.  Had to stay up late at night doing my homework because it took me forever to get home.  And when I didn’t understand something, I had to drum up the courage to ask for help, and believe me, there was a lot I didn’t understand going to high school.

 

In other words, I had to take control of my education, had to set my own course for my future.  And here’s the thing that I do know, which is why I am here and I’m not anywhere else in this country — I am here because I know that every single one of you can do that, too.  I know that.  If I can do it, you can do it.  There is absolutely no excuse.  You are no better or no different than me.  I didn’t have money growing up.  I didn’t grow up in a nice neighborhood.  But I am here.

 

So if you are a freshman or a sophomore, start making your plan.  Talk to your parents, your teachers, your counselors — whoever — about different colleges and careers that you might want to pursue.  Get a plan in your head, and then figure out what it’s going to take for you to get where you want to go.

 

To the juniors and seniors, you all should be working hard to execute your plans.  You should be studying for the SATs and ACTs.  Let me tell you, my daughter, who is a junior, is studying for her tests right now.  She studies every weekend, on the weekdays, in addition to her homework.  I’m just telling you what one kid is doing, but I know that every kid in her school is doing the same thing.  Got to fill out that FAFSA form, look for those scholarships and those grants that are out there just waiting for you.  Got to start working on those college applications and essays starting now.

 

And all of you should be pushing yourselves and challenging yourselves right now every day to be the absolute best students and the best people that you can be.  And you can just use the resources here — I know you just had a college fair earlier today.  So going to the college fair is important, but don’t stop there.  If you can, go visit some of those schools.  I was just talking to some of the kids who were with me at the college fair.  It’s so important for you, if you get an opportunity, to spend some time on a college campus.  I didn’t do that.  I didn’t have the money.  But you all live near so many colleges, there’s no reason for you not to spend a weekend or a week seeing what it’s like being on a college campus, getting that vision of what it means to be in college, getting excited about it.

 

And ask questions.  Ask them about the cost and the kinds of financial aid that are available to you.  You’ve got to figure this stuff out.  And the Internet is an incredibly useful resource.  You can find all sorts of information online at websites like StudentAid.gov — we’ll make sure your counselors have that information.  KhanAcademy.org — if you haven’t heard of Khan Academy, it is a free, online educational resource, and they’ve created this new platform to help young people like many of you prepare for college.  They’ve got all sorts of videos, checklists to help you plan your high school classes and activities; to search for schools that fit your needs; to fill out your college scholarships and applications.  So thanks to websites like these, it’s easier than ever to before to take the steps to prepare yourself for the future.

 

But here’s the thing –- even if you’re working hard and doing everything right, there will still be times when things don’t go according to plan.  That ever happen to you all?

 

STUDENTS:  Yes.

 

MRS. OBAMA:  Stuff just doesn’t work out.  Maybe something goes wrong in your family or with one of your friends.  Maybe you don’t do as well as you wanted on the SATs or the ACTs.  Maybe you fall behind in classes.  And when things like that happen, it’s easy to get down on yourself.  It’s tempting to just give up.  But trust me, that’s just not the answer.

 

And that’s what the second part of this prep rally is about –- it’s about rallying when things go wrong.  She’s okay?  It’s okay, that happens to a lot of people who have to stand up for a long time.  We need one of our medics here.  We’ve got a young girl who fainted.  But it happens all the time.  She’s going to be okay.  Sometimes standing up — if anybody is starting to feel tired standing up, bend your knees — and eat your breakfast and lunch.  (Laughter.)  You okay?  Make sure she’s okay, too, right here.  Right here.  Everybody else feeling okay?

 

STUDENTS:  Yes!

 

MRS. OBAMA:  Are you all still fired up and ready to — are you listening to me?

 

STUDENTS:  Yes!

 

MRS. OBAMA:  Do you hear what I’m telling you?

 

STUDENTS:  Yes!

 

MRS. OBAMA:  Because I’m giving you some insights that a lot of rich kids all over the country — they know this stuff, and I want you to know it, too.  Because you have got to go and get your education.  You’ve got to.

 

And there are going to be plenty of times, you guys — have you dealt with situations where you just feel like you want to give up?  Like it’s just too hard?  Like everything is going wrong, you don’t have the support you need; that every time you try, you get something right, something else happens — right?  You think that’s never happened to me?  You think somebody like me has never had any problems?

 

Well, let me tell you, I still remember how one of my high school counselors told me that I shouldn’t apply to Princeton.  They told me I would never make it there, that I was setting my sights too high — can you believe that?  She told me, don’t bother.

 

But let me tell you something — that stuck with me.  It made me a little uncertain, it did.  It threw me off a little bit.  But let me tell you, it made me mad, too.  But I didn’t let those emotions get the best of me.  Instead, I focused on getting good grades.  I focused on signing up for activities, lining up my recommendations from teachers and mentors.  And in the end, I ended up showing that counselor just how wrong she was — because look at where I am right now.  (Applause.)

 

And then I had trouble at home.  My dad, my father had Multiple Sclerosis.  My dad grew up — I grew up with him with MS, which meant it was a disease that made it hard for him to walk.  And let me tell you, my father was my hero.  He was our family’s rock.  And seeing my father in pain, seeing him struggle to get himself out of bed every morning, to get dressed, to get to work just to support us — let me tell you, watching that every day, it broke my heart.

 

But as hard as that was, I knew that the best thing I could do for my father was to take care of myself and to handle my business, and to make him proud.  He taught me to keep myself out of trouble, so that’s what I did.  He told me that he expected me to go to college, so I worked hard to live up to that expectation.  And years later, when I got that degree he’d always dreamed for me, I knew I was doing right by my father.

 

Now, I know that many of you are dealing with even tougher challenges than I ever faced.  You might live in a neighborhood where you have to watch your back even — every time you leave the house.  You might have friends who make fun of you because you’re trying to get good grades.  Or maybe your parents aren’t around; maybe your folks are struggling just to pay the bills.  Maybe you’ve lost somebody to guns or drugs.  I don’t know — all of that is tough stuff for anyone to deal with, especially when you are still trying to grow up.

 

So how do you rally from something like that?  How do you pick yourself up when you feel like somebody keeps knocking you down over and over and over again?  You can start by listening to the words of the man this school is named after.

 

Booker T. Washington once said, he said, “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.”  In other words, you have got to have something called grit — have you all ever heard of grit?  It’s a kind of fierce determination that means you won’t stop at anything, you won’t let anything get in your way until you reach your goal.  That’s grit.

 

And let me tell you something, here is the secret to what you all have that a lot of other kids don’t — a lot of you already have that kind of grit, because all the challenges you’re facing right now at home, in your neighborhood, those experiences are making you tougher.  They’re making you stronger.  Those are advantages.  They’re not disadvantages.  And now that — you’ve got to just learn how to use that grit to help you get to and through college.  It’s the same determination — you already have it.

 

So if there is anybody telling you that you’re not college material — anyone — I want you to brush them off.  Prove them wrong.  If you’re having trouble with math or struggling to write a paper, don’t get discouraged — work harder.  And most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for help.  You know, our kids — we don’t ask for help because we think it’s weak.  We think it’s — we’re scared to ask for help.  But I want you all to ask for help.  Ask your teachers, your counselors, your coaches, your friends –- I don’t care who it is.

 

But here’s the thing about asking for help — you can’t do it just one time.  You’ve got to keep asking again and again and again until you get what you need.  You keep asking.  Do you understand me?  You don’t take no for an answer.  You keep going back in.  That’s how you rally back from adversity.

 

And if you ever begin to feel like you can’t make it, I want you to think about the story of a young man who walked these same halls 70 years ago.  You all had better know who I’m talking about.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rode a bus across town every day to get to this very school.  This is your legacy.  This was back during the days of Jim Crow — (applause) — so even when there weren’t any white folks on the bus, he still had to stand in the aisle at the back looking out over empty seats in the front.

 

As Dr. King later wrote, he said “every time I got on that bus,” he said, I left my mind on that front row.  And he said, “I said to myself, ‘One of these days, I’m going to put my body up there where my mind is.’”  And so Dr. King studied hard while he was here at this school.  Then he reached higher and went on to college at Morehouse, and then went onto graduate school.  And that education prepared him to lead a movement that tore down those Jim Crow laws and gave millions of folks across the country the rights they deserved.

 

Dr. King, Booker T. Washington, so many others worked and marched and risked their lives so that young people like you would have the chances that you have today –- the chance to go to a good school that cares about your future, the chance go on to college in America, the chance to build better lives for yourselves and for your families.

 

So now, my Washington Bulldogs, it is your responsibility to go on to achieve those dreams.  It’s your responsibility to carry out that legacy.  Those are big responsibilities, but I want you to know that you’re not doing this alone.  That’s why we’re here.  You’ve got so many people cheering for you, so many folks who have your back -– from your family, to the folks at this school, to your President and all the folks at the White House, including me.  That’s what my Reach Higher initiative is all about -– it’s about the White House working with leaders across the country to help kids like you complete your education past high school.

 

So let me tell you, we are going to be there for you.  But you have got to be there for yourself.  You have got to prep, and then you have got to rally.

 

So let me ask this one final question, after all this is said and done:  Are you ready to do that?

 

STUDENTS:  Yes!

 

MRS. OBAMA:  Are you ready to take on that challenge and own that responsibility, live up to that legacy?  Can you all do that?  Can you Bulldogs do what you need to do to get your education and own your future?  Are your ready to reach higher?

 

STUDENTS:  Yes!

 

MRS. OBAMA:  All right.  I want to hear it — are you all ready to reach higher?

 

STUDENTS:  Yes!

 

MRS. OBAMA:  All right.  Well, I’m looking forward to everything you all do in the years to come.  I love you all.  God bless.  Keep working hard.  I’m going to come down there and shake some hands.  (Applause.)

 

END                  2:31 P.M. EDT

 

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