KALAMAZOO, Mich. – The prize in a national competition for commencement speaker, President Barack Obama handed out diplomas and a few hugs as the 280 graduates of Kalamazoo Central High School filed across a stage in maroon and white gowns Monday night.
One part of Obama's message was a familiar one for commencement season: work hard and think of others. Less so was his encouragement to veer from the path of those who make excuses for their problems and blame others for their failures.
"We see it every day out in Washington," the president said, "with folks calling each other names and making all sorts of accusations on TV."
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Obama said the high school kids can do and have done better than that. An advocate for a better-educated work force as a way for the U.S. to stay competitive globally, he said the school had set an example with its level of community and parental involvement and the high standards of its teachers.
"I think that America has a lot to learn from Kalamazoo Central about what makes for a successful school in this new century," he told some 5,000 people packed into the basketball arena at Western Michigan University. "It's the key to our future."
"But the most important ingredient is you," Obama said.
"It definitely helps to hear that message, especially from the person who said it," said graduating senior Zack Heystek, who plans to study graphic design in college. "It was very inspiring. And it was awesome to meet him. The blood was just flowing and it was just crazy."
The 1,700-student school in southwest Michigan bested more than 1,000 schools and then topped two other finalists picked after the public voted on videos and essays they submitted. The White House made the final selection and cited Kalamazoo Central's 80 percent-plus graduation rate, improvements in academic performance and a culturally rich curriculum.
"You could have made excuses — our kids have fewer advantages, our schools have fewer resources, so how can we compete? You could have spent years pointing fingers — blaming parents, blaming teachers, blaming the principal or the superintendent or the government," the president said.
"But instead, you came together. You were honest with yourselves about where you were falling short. And you resolved to do better."
Obama said he didn't always understand that excellence comes through perseverance. He talked about his father leaving the family when he was 2, being raised by a single mother, acting too casual about his future and thinking that hard work and responsibility were old-fashioned ideas that didn't pertain to him.
"But after a few years, living solely for my own entertainment wasn't so entertaining anymore and it wasn't particularly satisfying either," he said. "In refusing to apply myself, I didn't have much to show for myself, nothing I could point to that I was proud of."
Education is widely seen as one hope for Michigan's long-struggling economy. The state has had the nation's highest unemployment rate for four consecutive years, including a 14 percent jobless rate in April. Thousands of manufacturing jobs have been lost, many connected to the auto industry, and the state is trying to diversify its economy with alternative energy, biomedical and other jobs — most of which require education beyond high school.
The White House said more than 170,000 people voted in the Race to the Top Commencement Challenge competition. Cincinnati's Clark Montessori Junior High and High School and the Denver School of Science and Technology were the other finalists.
Tevyn Grayson, who is finishing up his junior year at Kalamazoo Central and came to watch friends and cousins graduate, said Obama's appearance sends a powerful message to younger students about the importance of education.
"I know it must be important for the president to come to our city to give a commencement speech," said Grayson, 17. "There's a lot of pressure to succeed now. Can't be the one to mess it up."
About an hour before the graduates filed into the arena, Obama surprised them by dropping into the recreation center as they got ready for the biggest day of their lives to date.
Walking around with a hand-held microphone, Obama told the students to work hard, keep their eyes on the prize and continue to carry with them a sense of excellence.
"There is nothing you can't accomplish," he said, adding that they should consider public service. "I might be warming up the seat for you."