Wednesday, September 9, 2009



By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 9, 2009

If the past week's furor over whether President Obama should address the nation's students reached Mary Ann Richardson's 12th-grade U.S. government class at Annandale High School, it did not leave a lasting impression Tuesday.

As Obama's image flickered over C-SPAN, most of the two dozen high school seniors listened in silence as the president spoke of his experiences and told students that they would be letting themselves and the country down if they didn't live up to their potential.

One student stared out the window. Another put his head down on the desk. The only noise during the 15-minute-long address came in the form of laughter, when Obama said that even Michael Jordan had been cut from his high school basketball team.

Listening to Obama's speech was just one task of many on a busy first day as students focused on learning summer gossip, puzzling out their schedules and finding their way around school.

In Richardson's classroom, where portraits of presidents stare down from the walls and laminated Newsweek covers hype current events, students flipped through their new textbooks before the speech as she took attendance, told them her expectations and plans for the year, and tried to learn their names. A muted television sat in the corner of the classroom, showing an empty stage and an expectant audience.

Twenty minutes before the speech started, and halfway through the 86-minute class period, Richardson stopped talking about class and switched topics to the powers of the presidency.

"A lot of people think our president's ability to speak to the people and change their opinions is a very important power," she said. She asked students what they thought Obama would say.

"Stay in school!" one boy said. "Don't do drugs," another said. Nobody volunteered anything political.

Wakefield High School in Arlington County, which Obama chose as his stage, is a 15-minute drive from Annandale High on Columbia Pike. Instead of being lectured about grading and attendance policies, students at Wakefield enjoyed a brief moment in the spotlight as images of them sitting in their gymnasium were beamed across the country.

Annandale students could only watch in envy.

"That's a legit first day of school!" said Rachel Gallogly, 17.

Three minutes before noon, the principal's voice crackled over the intercom to tell teachers to turn on their TVs. Richardson dimmed the lights and turned up the volume. Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke first, followed by Wakefield's senior class president. Then Obama took the stage.

The speech was timed, it seemed, to the Annandale class schedule. The president's "God bless America" sign-off came just three minutes before the next class. As the bell rang, Richardson asked students about the speech's intended audience and told them to answer in a brief response as homework. The room emptied out as most students quickly voiced their approval before rushing off to their next class.

Rachel called the speech "touching."
"It applied especially to me because I didn't really like school before," she said.

Danny DeVera, 17, said he appreciated Obama's point that success requires a lot of hard work. It has been on his mind lately as he has worried about applying to college, he said. "Focusing on school hasn't been one of my top priorities," but that's changing, he said.

As Richardson prepped for another group of new faces, she said she thought the speech had motivated her students and was glad that Obama had decided to give it.
But, she said, "it's a little tough to do it on the first day of school."