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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

National Back to School Tour: Meade High School
Ft. Meade, MD
September 8, 2009

Lieutenant Governor Brown, thank you for that kind introduction. Many thanks, also, for the invaluable help you provided as I transitioned into my duties as Secretary of Veterans Affairs; it’s good to see you again.

Principal Kennedy—thank you for hosting us for this important message from the President of the United States. Special thanks to all of Meade High School’s staff and faculty, but especially to Ms. Shirley Herrmann, who has superbly coordinated our visit here today; Superintendent Maxwell, Anne Arundel County Schools System; Colonel Thomas, Installation Commander, here at Fort Meade; most importantly, students of Meade High School:

Good morning everyone! In just a few minutes, President Obama will be joining us and millions of other students all across the country, by webcast video, to speak about the importance of learning and knowledge, staying in school, working hard, and getting the most out of your educational opportunities.

My name is Ric Shinseki. i’m honored to be here to underscore the President’s message this morning. Like President Obama, I grew up in the state of Hawai’i—about 20 years before he did. I was born a year after our country entered World War II, in 1941, and I know that’s ancient history for all of you. But for the first several years of my life, I lived under something called martial law, which means that the military controlled the entire state, not just an installation like Fort Meade, but the entire state, because Hawai’i, at the time, was in the middle of the pacific war zone.

I marvel that you will get to see and hear the President speak to you directly by live, streaming video this morning because, in my day, I never saw the President either in person or on television, and certainly not by webcast. We just didn’t have those technologies then—no television, no Internet, and no webcast video. i would see photographs of the president in newspapers and magazines or, if I could afford a movie ticket, I might have seen a news clip of President Roosevelt or President Truman or President Eisenhower at some activity that had happened weeks or months before, but never live or in real time.

So I’m excited about your opportunity to hear directly from the President about what will make a difference in your lives, as it did in ours. I share the President’s hope for you and his personal commitment to help you achieve greatness for yourselves, your communities, and our country by encouraging you to set and achieve high educational goals and by volunteering to share your time, your talents, and your energies with others less fortunate than yourselves.

The President will encourage you to take on a couple of critical responsibilities:

First, stay in school. Stay in school! I know there are hundreds of temptations competing with your doing that. Attending school in Hawai’i, you can only imagine the temptations when the surf was up. But, if you want to make positive contributions in life, you must find the discipline to do the hard work and the determination to be the best at the important things.

In this country, we are privileged to have good public schools. When I served in the Army, I had the opportunity to travel overseas to places where public education suffered. In many locations, education was a privilege of the wealthy. In other places, there were no schools at all. children in those locations would have done anything to be able to spend one day in your shoes. So, take full advantage of every opportunity and the resources available to you. This is an important first step toward the president’s second priority:

Take charge of your own education. Your teachers open doors for you by introducing you to new ideas, critical thinking, historical perspectives, and vital social skills. But they are only able to hold those doors open for you—you have to decide to walk through them.

I came from a family in which there wasn’t much education. Both of my parents, like others in the neighborhood, dropped out of school at early ages for economic reasons—my Dad as a sophomore in high school, my Mom as an eighth grader. They had to go to work to help their families pay bills. For the rest of their lives, they regretted their lack of education and tried to make up for it. So there was no question that my brother and sister and I were going to receive our high school diplomas and go on to college—never whether, only where.

Like my friends and classmates from those days, I was born into a family that saw no shame in hard work—physical or intellectual. I learned early that there is no greater nobility in life than the willingness to work hard to be the best at whatever you choose to do and to be a good friend to those you meet. My family emphasized education and integrity—education as the chance to change our lot in life; integrity as a commitment to earn our own way, not at the expense of others. A day’s pay for a day’s labor.

I was blessed with wonderful teachers. One, in particular, I remember was Ms. M. M. Jones, Mary Mildred Jones. We called her “Mama Jones.” She probably stood 4’10” tall, but she was as tough as nails. She taught English, and her demands of us were clear: “If you want to make something of yourselves, you must do well in English. We had all grown up speaking pidgin, a local dialect, and she opened the door to more effective communications for many of us; and we walked through it.

Make math, science, English, and history your personal responsibilities. There are no shortcuts to any of this, just plain, old fashioned hard work. The payoff is future success for you, your families, and our country. in President Obama’s words, In an economy where knowledge is the most valuable commodity a person and a country have to offer, the best jobs will go to the best educated—whether they live in the United States or India or China.

If you apply yourselves, you will gain great personal satisfaction from completing your education here at Meade High School. It will help you decide what the next step in lifelong learning will be for you.

Last, I’d like to encourage you to make time for others. Here at Meade, there is already a robust volunteer community service program. I understand that last year, alone, Meade students contributed 43,000 hours reaching out to their communities and beyond. Meade’s Key Club, International Baccalaureate Studies Program, National Honor Society, and initiatives of Meade Senior High School’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Program (JROTC) are just three examples of your service to others.

I congratulate you for such dedication and commend to you the example of James Burns, your JROTC Cadet Commander, who volunteers in many activities within his community. Across the Nation, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has more than 20,000 young volunteers expanding their education by volunteering in over 160 of our VA facilities. VA has a number of high school volunteer scholarship programs; there is so much good to be done, if you are so inclined.

Let me summarize the points I shared with you this morning:

  1. Stay in school: it will make all the difference in your lives. It did in mine.
  2. Take charge of your own education: you have an important role to play in getting that education. Staying in school is just step one. What do you want to be able to do when you leave Meade Senior High School? The world is an open door—use your time here wisely. There are children who would trade places with you in a New York minute. It’s your future; take control of it.
  3. Make time for others. There is more to education than just books and classrooms. Expand learning and knowledge by finding ways to give back to your communities. Donate your time, talents, and energies to others, who need help. Volunteering is a good way to do that.

It’s been great to share this time with you. In the movie “Sister Act II,” students in Whoopi Goldberg’s high school class sing an anthem to getting an education. The song is entitled “Wake Up and Pay Attention.” The words go like this:

Time to wake up everybody,
Time to wake up children.
Wake up everybody....

If you wanna be somebody;
If you wanna go somewhere;
You better wake up and pay attention.
When the time is now or never
To make your dreams come true,
You gotta' wake up and pay attention.

Now Ms. Jones might have frowned at the sentence structure, but the message is clear. I wish you all the very best with your futures. I hope you are as fortunate in life as I have been. Make your time here at Meade High School count. Graduate with a first rate education. You will be using what you learn here for the rest of your lives.

Thank you and good luck!