Obama tells Memphis students their success inspires - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Obama tells Memphis students their success inspires

President Obama smiles during Monday's speech. President Obama smiles during Monday's speech.
Air Force One landed around 10:00 a.m. Air Force One landed around 10:00 a.m.
Obama met two BTW students just after Air Force One landed. Obama met two BTW students just after Air Force One landed.

Rewarded with the president of the United States as their commencement speaker, the graduating seniors at Booker T. Washington High School got the same advice a young Barack Obama once got himself: Keep pushing.

Click here to read the full text of the speech | Watch the speech

"You've always been underdogs," the president told the cheering students clad in green and yellow gowns from a school where academic scores and graduation rates have soared despite tough conditions in the community. "Nobody's handed you a thing. But that also means that whatever you accomplish in your life, you'll have earned it," Obama said.

The high school won a national competition, and Obama's presence, thanks to its hard-fought academic turnaround. The school is in a gritty south Memphis community where many of its students live in tough neighborhoods beset by crime, drug addiction, teenage pregnancy and untreated mental illness. A majority of the students are poor, and some are homeless.

See more video from today's visit in the column labeled "Also on WMCTV.com" to the right of this story.

Obama told the smiling seniors: "You've shown more grit and determination in your childhoods than a lot of adults ever will."

The president personalized his graduation message, reminding the students his father left home when he was 2 and his mom raised him amid economic struggles. He said his mother and his grandparents stayed on him to excel.

"I'm lucky they kept pushing," Obama said. "I'm lucky my teachers kept pushing. Because education made all the difference in my life. And it's going to make an even greater difference in your lives."

After putting in place educational innovations and adding variety to its curriculum, the Memphis high school saw its graduation rate jump from 55 percent in 2007 to nearly 82 percent in 2010. Changes at the school include separate freshmen academies for boys and girls and a greater choice of advanced placement classes.

Obama said the whole culture of the school has changed to one of caring and learning.

"That's why I came here today," he said. "Because if success can happen here at Booker T. Washington, it can happen anywhere in Memphis. And if it can happen in Memphis, it can happen anywhere in Tennessee. And if can happen anywhere in Tennessee, it can happen all across America."

Obama seemed to enjoy the moment as much as the students, who he met with backstage before the ceremony started. (Click here to watch video of the meeting.)
"We were inspired by the video you sent, by the stories you told," he said. "Inspired by how you turned this school around."

As the President offered words of encouragement, he told the graduating class to always keep their head up and be proud of their many achievements.
"A lot of you had to struggle to get here," he said. "Most of you weren't born with a silver spoon in your mouth."

Obama said he always treasures commencement ceremonies, but "this one is especially hopeful." And he thanked the students for inspiring him as president.

Obama spoke after privately offering comfort to Memphis area families affected by the Mississippi River's flooding; his trip had been scheduled before the flooding occurred.

The two-pronged day allowed Obama to draw attention to his education agenda while also attending to the latest natural disaster - the snow melt and rain that have sent a torrent of water down the Mississippi, topping levees and forcing flooding along its path.

The river crested at Memphis last week, just inches short of the record set in 1937. Some low-lying neighborhoods were inundated, but the city's high levees protected much of the rest of Memphis.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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