My kids aren't Hitler youth yet

How did Obama's speech to students rate? Ask the audience it was intended for

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 8, 2009 5:09PM (EDT)

Salon composite/iStock photo

“Mom, what’s ‘leftist indoctrination’?”

My 9- and 5-year old daughters had just finished watching Barack Obama’s “controversial speech” to America’s students, and the newscaster spin had already begun. “I’m not sure myself,” I told them. “It means some people were concerned you’d get funny ideas about how to run the country.” To which my elder child paused for a moment, reflected, and said, “Well, that’s just loco.”

The president’s much ballyhooed address has been the subject of right-wing hand wringing since it was announced weeks ago. Several schools refused to air it. In my home, the most stinging criticism of the speech came from my younger child, who lasted 10 minutes before pronouncing it “boring,” grabbing her Hannah Montana wig and leaving the room in a huff.

Lucy, on the other hand -- the child who accompanied me into a voting booth and pulled the lever last November -- thought Obama seemed “nice and smart.”

“He was funny at points,” she said, “but he was also serious.” He told kids to do their homework. To stay in school. That “you can’t let your failures define you -- you have to let them teach you.” At no point did either of my children turn to me and observe, “OMG, that is so Hitler.”

Tomorrow my girls will start a new year at a New York City public school whose budget was recently slashed by over $300,000. They will have lost five of their school aides and one paraprofessional under a principal who has one year of running a school under his belt. There's no phys ed program, and the art teacher quit and has not been replaced. The list of supplies requested by their teachers includes mops and soap. This, by the way, is a school my children and I love, one with the most hard-working, dedicated, loving community of parents and teachers I've ever encountered. My elder daughter will take a series of state-run tests whose results will largely determine her already limited middle school options. So it’s a little hard for me to get whipped up over the imagined threat that my kids are going to turn into commie zombies from watching a speech. Instead, I found myself welling up when Obama told the assembly, “I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn.” Because God knows they really do need them.

As we shut off the TV, I asked my soon-to-be fourth-grader what she got from Obama’s words. “It made sense,” she said. “I’m going to try to work extra hard now because the president said it’s good to do that and I trust him.” And then, brimming with her childish curiosity, she asked the question that had been burning in her mind the whole time.

“Can we have lunch now?” 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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