COLUMBIA — Students at Rock Bridge High School laughed when the shocked face of a high school girl came on the screen just after President Barack Obama told them that even Michael Jordan struggled.
“Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team,” Obama said. “But he once said, ‘I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that's why I succeed.’”
On Tuesday, Obama addressed the nation's schoolchildren on the importance of staying in school, working hard and setting academic goals. Days before the 16-minute speech, which aired online and on television, the nature of Obama's message was questioned. Some parents wanted their children to be present for the speech for its historical significance, while others thought the speech would push a political agenda.
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“It’s part of the climate of the country,” said Lynn Proctor, superintendent of the Harrisburg School District north of Columbia. “We’re in a climate of distress.”
Other concerns included missing class time and interpreting the message of Obama’s address without parental contribution. At Wakefield High in Arlington, Va., where Obama spoke, he was met by a small group of protesters. “Mr. President, stay away from our kids,” one sign read.
“It’s a little alarming," said John Robertson, superintendent of the Hallsville School District. "I want our president to encourage students no matter what party affiliation they represent.”
Robertson said that he would never mandate watching the president’s address to the students but that if a teacher chooses to show the speech, “It should be aligned to the curriculum.”
Todd Fuller, spokesman for the Missouri State Teachers Association, said many discussions about education revolve around parental and teacher responsibilities. "I think President Obama did a good job talking about the responsibility of students as well," Fuller said. "That's a message that gets overlooked, and I think it's an important one."
The U.S. Department of Education offered potential lesson plans to accompany the airing. Questions posed to students included “What do you think the president will say to you?” and “What was the impact of the speech?”
Tahura Lodhi, a Rock Bridge sophomore, said she felt Obama's speech was more credible because he disregarded the controversy and went through with the speech as planned. The administration at Rock Bridge decided to hold an optional viewing session of the speech live in the Performing Arts Center. Students were allowed to come and go as they pleased during their lunch hour. Lodhi had talked with her parents about the speech, and they thought it was a good idea for her to go.
School districts in central Missouri dealt with the speech in different ways. The Prairie Home School District restricted it from being shown to students, while Columbia Public Schools left it up to teachers with a stipulation that parents be notified before Tuesday.
"Schools needed to do what was best for them and their students," said Jim Morris, spokesman for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Darin Ford, superintendent of the Centralia School District, said parents were urged to watch the speech at home after school with their children.
“I think sometimes parents are sensitive about their children, especially young children,” Ford said. “He is the president of the United States, and we should have respect for him and his office.”
George Frissell, a social studies teacher at Hickman High School, remembers when politics in the classroom were not such an issue.
“When I was a young student, I remember addresses from the president,” Frissell said. “It was considered something to be enjoyed and celebrated. It was the idea that (people) had great respect for that office and that if the president had something to say, they should listen.”
Frissell sees the controversy surrounding Obama’s speech in the light of last year’s campaign. “If you look at the campaign itself … I think that somebody might say it’s almost an extension of how much of a hard fought and bitter campaign it was,” he said.
Chad Bass showed the speech to his fifth-graders at Parkade Elementary School. “I feel this will be a wonderful opportunity for our class to have great discussions about what they want in their own education,” Bass wrote in a letter to parents seeking their permission.
Bass said that out of 21 students, six did not watch the speech. “I didn’t receive complaints from parents, but the kids who didn’t watch the speech just forgot to bring their permission slips home,” he said.
At 11 a.m. when the speech began, Bass’ students seemed eager to watch and applauded along with the audience at the Virginia high school as Obama took the stage. Addressing issues such as staying in school and getting involved in extracurricular activities, Obama spoke to students of all ages.
“Today I'm calling on each of you to set your own goals for your education — and do everything you can to meet them,” Obama said. “Your goal can be something as simple as doing all your homework, paying attention in class or spending some time each day reading a book.”
Ariella Aponte, a 10-year-old in Bass' class, said she liked how the president talked about hard work. “I liked when he talked about his mom teaching him as a child when she was a single, working parent,” Ariella said.
Bass and his students had a brief discussion after the speech. Each student said what he or she had learned from the speech, such as setting academic goals or knowing when to take a sick day.
Bass also emphasized Obama’s points that students find adults to offer guidance in their lives and that they ask for help when they need it.
“Asking for help isn't a sign of weakness, it's a sign of strength,” Obama said, “so find an adult that you trust — a parent, a grandparent or teacher, a coach or a counselor — and ask them to help you stay on track to meet your goals.”
Missourian reporters Michelle Hagopian, Sarah Horn, Kelsey Mirando, Haleigh Castino and Stephanie Fleming and The Associated Press contributed to this article.