Remarks by the First Lady at National Student Poets Ceremony
11:10 A.M. EDT
MRS. OBAMA: Good morning, everyone. To say I’m thrilled to be here is -- would be an understatement. I look forward to this event every year, time that we honor our 2015 National Student Poets. Don’t they look good? (Laughter.) They look good. Bowties! (Laughter.) They did them themselves! (Laughter and applause.)
I want to start by recognizing a few important people who helped to make this day possible. First of all, I want to recognize Rachel Goslins -- I know, you always say don’t even focus on me, but we can’t help it. You’ve done such great work. We love you. You are phenomenal, and we couldn’t do this without you -- along with the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. Would all the committee members here please just stand for a second so these students know who you are? (Applause.) This is the committee who makes everything we do here at the arts possible. They lend their time, their expertise, their passion. So you wouldn’t be here without these folks. And they’ve been rock-solid for me for, oh, has it been seven years? It’s been a while. (Laughter.)
I also want to recognize the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, The Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, and, of course, our good, dear friend who’s back, Olivia Morgan, who has been the driving force behind this initiative right from the very beginning. So you’re not -- you came here. She’s in San Francisco, she left us. But she’s back and still working hard. Olivia, thank you. Thank you for this. Thank you for your passion. Thank you for your work.
In just four years, all of you, this wonderful team of people, have developed a nationally renowned program for young poets. In fact, this year’s contest received over 20,000 submissions. That’s just wonderful -- 20,000. This is a pretty competitive pool too, just so that you know. You weren’t just given this. (Laughter.) You competed hard for these spots. This is an incredible accomplishment, and I am so grateful to everyone for the outstanding work that makes this day possible.
I also want to thank our distinguished poet, Jacqueline Woodson. Jacqueline, where are you? There you are, you’re right there. We’re going to hear from her later.
And it’s so important to have these mentors, these folks who have really built their careers here to be able to share and give advice. So we’re grateful to you for your work, for your wisdom, for your talent, and for taking the time to be here. So let’s give everyone -- (applause.)
Forgive me, I have a cold that I’ve had for, like, 10 days now. So pardon my congestion.
But most of all, I want to honor the young people that are standing with me today, our fourth class of National Student Poets. We have Chasity Hale, from Miami Beach, Florida. We have Eileen Huang, from Holmdel, New Jersey. We have De’John Hardges, from Cleveland, Ohio. David Xiang, from Little Rock, Arkansas -- yes, yes, you guys make sure people know who you are. (Laughter.) And we’ve got Anna Lance, who is here all the way from Eagle River, Alaska. She gets the prize for the furthest to travel. (Laughter.)
I’m so proud of you all, really. I truly am. And I had an opportunity to meet your families; we got a picture right before we did the pinning. So I get the feeling that your families are pretty proud of you too today, right? Let’s see the parents, the mentors who all -- please take a moment to stand so that we know who you are. (Applause.) Thank you all. But here’s the thing. I just don't want you all to be surprised if the next time they miss a chore or don't clean up after themselves that they might not hang this little White House visit over your head. (Laughter.)
But in all -- seriously, but today is about celebrating these extraordinary young people, but it’s also about bringing the power of poetry to kids across the country, which is why it's so important that we pull the media into this and we shine a big, bright light on this small but very talented group of young people. That’s why the President and I launched this program.
And as you may know, the President -- your President is crazy about poetry. And we both wanted more of our young people to experience the joy and the freedom -- and also the fear that comes with writing poetry. Right? I mean, it's a scary proposition, because there’s some real fear that comes with exposing yourself in that way. It’s scary to open yourself up and invite the entire world in to witness your deepest thoughts.
I don't mean to scare you to death. (Laughter.) But it takes a level of bravery to be that vulnerable, to stand up in this room, this historic place, and lights and cameras, and share something so personal and so precious. But that is also the beauty of poetry -- how it helps you take all those complex and confusing thoughts and emotions and put them into words.
I experienced this myself when I was your age, because when I was younger I was a pretty passionate creative writer -- and I tried my hand at a little poetry, too. And I know how powerful that process can be. Because growing up, my family -- everybody knows we didn’t come from great wealth, we didn’t have a lot of advantages or luxuries, or things like that. But my parents always made it clear that the arts -- even though they weren't educated, they knew that the arts -- things like poetry and music and drama and writing -- those things weren’t luxuries, they were necessities. No matter where you come from, they knew that we needed those experiences to feed our souls and to make us whole and complete individuals.
So they did everything in their power, spent every penny they didn’t have to make sure we had piano lessons -- and I see the parents nodding -- enrolling us in summer programs at our church where we’d put on plays and we’d do musical performances. I was actually a little fairy once, and I had to sing. (Laughter.) I wasn’t a good singer, but -- (laughter) -- somehow that must have done something for me in the end. My parents encouraged me to become a writer myself.
So as a kid, when I was feeling anxious or bored or lonely, I would often sit down and just write and write and write. And I would get lost in that writing. And it helped me on so many levels to be able to pour out feelings and frustrations onto paper. And then eventually I would always feel a little better, more empowered, more in control.
And like many young people, I didn’t just get the emotional benefits of writing, I also got the academic benefits as well. Because as I improved my writing, just because it was fun and it was an outlet, I also improved my thinking –- I was better able to organize my thoughts in class. I was better able to clearly express my ideas on papers and exams. It was second nature.
And that’s the power of the arts in our schools. We talk about this all the time: The arts can actually make kids better students. And we lose sight of that fact when we eliminate these kind of opportunities. This is the stuff that hooks kids in. And the evidence is crystal clear: Kids who get involved in the arts, they have higher grades. They have higher graduation rates. They have higher college enrollment rates. We could go on and on and on.
So arts education isn’t just a luxury that we add on after we’ve achieved other priorities like raising test scores and getting kids into college. And we say this every time we do an event. These are not luxuries, these are absolute necessities. It’s actually critical to achieving those initial priorities in the first place.
So I have an assignment for you guys -- and we all get this assignment, don't we? I want you all to be ambassadors for the arts, all right? You are now chosen to go out there and spread the word and to share your gift with as many people as you can.
And I’m sure that you all know plenty of kids in your communities, in your families who can’t even imagine being where you are today, standing in this room with all these folks -– kids who’ve never written a poem. They’ve never even written down a thought maybe even. Kids who never read great poets like Jacqueline, they don't know she exists -- I want you all to find those kids in your lives. Find them, seek them out. And some of you are older siblings, so you've young people right in your own orbit who are watching you every step of the way. I want you to ask your teachers to make sure they're including poetry in their lesson plans. Be that advocate in your schools and your communities. Reach out to folks who live around you and could probably use some poetry in their lives, right?
Past National Student Poets have shared their passion for poetry with military families, with Alzheimer’s patients, with incarcerated women. This is sort of the legacy they’ve left. They’ve done really good work once they’ve left this room to keep spreading the word.
And I want to be clear -- you don’t have to find the perfect poem to share. It’s not really even about the perfect work. It doesn't have to be your most polished final draft. It doesn't have to be perfect.
I think Chasity said it best -- and this is something she said in one of her poems -- she said: “We’ll use every rusted coin to purchase blessings, and buy plane tickets to destiny.”
I love that. Love that. And I promise you all that the words you share with others will be blessings -– both to them and to you. And I want you all to spread those blessings. I want you to help other young people buy their own plane tickets to destiny –- maybe even to the White House. You may inspire the next National Student Poets to be standing right here.
I know you all can do this. Every year we have great young people who take this pledge and go on to do some wonderful things. This is the beginning of something phenomenal for each and every one of you. And I am so excited for you. And I don't want you to be nervous about it. I don't want you -- I want you to feel empowered by it. You all can do this. You made it to this point. There is nothing you can't do. And you've all these people who are so proud of you. It’s such a rare gift -- treasure it, share it, make it grow even bigger.
So with that, I want to thank everyone for joining us again today. And I can’t wait to hear all these young people who are going to do a few readings from their work, my favorite part. So I think I’m supposed to sit down, and you guys know everything else you're supposed to do, right? (Laughter.) I can get out of the way. Thank you, guys. (Applause.)
(Poems are read.)
MRS. OBAMA: Wow! What do you say? What do you say? I'm supposed to close this out, but I'm speechless. This is I think one of the most beautiful moments that we have here at the White House. And you all have to agree that we're sitting in this historic place, with young people who represent all of America, with such talent and passion. This is special time. This doesn’t happen all the time. It should happen more, in more special places all around the world, quite frankly. And hopefully, we all leave here inspired to do more of this -- to lift up these young people and to encourage them and empower them to go out and change the world, because you all clearly can. You will. You are.
Jacqueline, thank you for those words, for that inspiration you’ve given them, for the words that show them their power, for being that mentor. It's beautiful.
Ashley, we're so proud of you. You have grown so much. That's the other thing that's wonderful to watch, is like who you guys will be, what your voices will look like in just a year. Ashley is like -- you know, you're like a little old lady -- (laughter) -- just all self-possessed and clear and confident in a way that just points out how powerful and impactful this year can be -- and will be for all of you.
Olivia, thank you for that video. I will say, I don't get to see their year; I get to see the beginning and the end. But this program, this year of service is at the cornerstone of this. This pinning, this day, this is cool, right? You’ll remember it, right? You’ll tell your kids about it. Don't lose your pins, okay? (Laughter.) But it's the work that you're going to do for the remainder of the year that is really going to change your whole construct of your lives. And so embrace this year. It looks like it's going to be so much fun. I would trade my coming year -- (laughter) -- with your coming year. I would do that. (Laughter.)
But, again, we are proud of you, very proud of you. And it is always an honor to spend this time with you all, and to watch you grow, and to hear your words. Thank you. Thank you. And congratulations.
You all, thank you for being here. Enjoy. We'll see you next year? Yeah, we will. (Applause.)
11:52 A.M. EDT