Sep 9, 2009

A Tale of Two Presidents

More than forty years ago, another president visited another area high school. It was the spring of 1967, and the Vietnam War was raging. The weary man who stepped out of a helicopter parked in a field on the side of my high school bore no resemblance to the vigorous young African-American president whose storybook rise to power was due in part to the many accomplishments of the Great Society. Unlike the students at Wakefield High, the Crossland student body had no advance notice and there was no early press release signaling the message the president wanted to impart. We knew something was afoot when Secret Service agents appeared on the roof of the school and rumors flew about the importance of the guest we were about to receive.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson dedicated the Crossland Vocational Center, in Camp Springs MD, on April 27, 1967. I was a high school junior. While marking the 50th anniversary of the Smith-Hughes Act, a charter pledging federal support for vocational education, President Johnson noted the importance of providing opportunities such that “every young American shall obtain as much education as he wants and as much training as he can absorb and can use.” He outlined the historic struggle for public education and chastised what he saw as congressional efforts to turn back the clock on equal rights and federal aid to education. “Once we considered education a public expense; we know now that it is a public investment.” And standing before a large crowd of very subdued high school students, he reminded us that “…there is nothing more important to freedom in the world, to liberty in the world, to the dignity of man than education.”

Reshaping this theme for twenty-first century teenagers, President Obama made the same point at Wakefield High School. “What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.” He urged students to take advantage of the opportunities made possible by the educational pioneers of the last century and squarely returned responsibility to the young people who surrounded him in bleachers, “The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.”

Words are forgotten, but inspiration lives on. I may not have exactly remembered President Johnson’s remarks on that beautiful April morning, but I never forgot his visit or why he was there. Forty years from now, I am very certain that the students of Wakefield High will not only remember President Obama’s visit but will have also benefited from his insight on the importance of education. And that’s what we’re here for.

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