President addresses high school graduates
Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tennessee won a national competition in 2011 with a video created by student, Christopher Dean.* The film depicted a boy running in despair toward the camera as a bulldozer tore down apartment buildings in his neighborhood symbolizing the hopelessness in the boy’s community.
Accompanying the video were the statistics of remarkable improvement at the high school. Starting in 1873, Booker T. was the city’s first school to educate black children. It boasted of several distinguished graduates including NAACP executive director, Benjamin Hooks, songwriter Lucie Campbell, and Willie Herenton, the first elected black mayor of Memphis. However, the neighborhood declined over the years and became crime-ridden and poor.
Hard work and dedication saw the school overcome a history of disciplinary problems and high drop-out rates. Innovative changes included in classes and separate academies for freshman boys and girls. In 2011, the graduation rate of its students rose to 82% from 55% in 2007. In addressing the 150 graduates and their families on May 16, 2011, President Obama repeated part of his 2008 campaign slogan in stating “Well, we are here today because every single one of you stood up and said. ‘Yes we can.’ Yes we can learn. Yes we can succeed.”
The President continued, “You’ve shown more grit and determination in your childhoods than a lot of adults ever will.” He personalized his remarks by telling them that he was two years old when his father left home. His mother and grandparents pressed him to excel. “I’m lucky they kept pushing,” he 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. You’ve now become role models for all the young people coming in behind you.”
*Christopher was given the honor of introducing the President at the ceremony.
Watch valedictorian Deonte Bridges’ address here.