COLUMBIA — Rock Bridge High School students said they found President Barack Obama's annual back-to-school talk Tuesday both inspiring and relevant.
“It was very encouraging,” said Rock Bridge sophomore West Wilson, 15.
Sophomore Julia Schaller said the speech gave her a way to connect her education to a future success.
Kennedy Smith, 15, another sophomore, said she liked the way Obama used his experience as a teenage slacker to encourage students to push themselves.
The three were among 69 Rock Bridge students gathered at noon in the high school performing arts center to listen to the televised speech.
Columbia Public Schools made the speech available to students at all of the district's schools. Teachers could screen the speech in class but were not required to do so. Also, students were not required to watch the speech, but a number of teachers felt that it was important.
Greg Irwin, a world studies teacher at Rock Bridge, said he screened the speech in class but allowed students to opt out of watching it if they wished.
“Some did opt out, only about a handful out of 60 kids,” he said.
Last year's speech sparked controversy when critics suggested that the president was using it as a political forum. This year, the event drew little prior discussion.
Obama began by telling the students that the future was in their hands and nothing was beyond their reach if they worked hard.
"Nobody gets to write your destiny but you," he said. "So long as you're willing to stay focused on your education, there is not a single thing that any of you cannot accomplish."
Obama used himself as an example throughout the address.
He recalled a conversation with his mother who was concerned about her son's lack of interest in his education.
"She said, you can't just sit around waiting for luck to see you through," he said. "She gave me a hard look and she said, you remember what that's like? Effort?"
At first he laughed off her words, he said, but eventually found the truth in them and committed himself to his studies.
"And I know if hard work could make the difference for me, it could make the difference for you," he said.
Obama also touched on how education goes beyond tests and grades.
"It's also about giving each and every one of us the chance to fulfill our promise and to be the best version of ourselves we can be," he said.
Irwin had his students watch the speech last year as well, saying he thinks it’s important for them to hear what the president has to say.
“We also talked about it afterward,” Irwin said.
“A lot of students could empathize with what Obama said about his own struggles and how he was able to overcome them. They really responded to that.”