MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Rewarded with the president of the United States as their commencement speaker, the graduating seniors at Booker T. Washington High School got the same advice a young Barack Obama once got himself: Keep pushing.
"You've always been underdogs," the president told the cheering students, clad in green and yellow gowns, from a school where academic scores and graduation rates have soared despite tough conditions in the community. "Nobody's handed you a thing. But that also means that whatever you accomplish in your life, you'll have earned it," Obama said.
The high school won a national competition, and Obama's presence, thanks to its hard-fought academic turnaround. The school is in a gritty south Memphis community where many of its students live in tough neighborhoods beset by crime, drug addiction, teenage pregnancy and untreated mental illness. A majority of the students are poor, and some are homeless.
Obama told the smiling seniors: "You've shown more grit and determination in your childhoods than a lot of adults ever will."
The president personalized his graduation message, reminding the students his father left home when he was 2 and his mom raised him amid economic struggles. He said his mother and his grandparents stayed on him to excel.
"I'm lucky they kept pushing," Obama 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."