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Speech by the First Lady
Town Hall Los Angeles
February 12, 2002
Speech by the First Lady at Town Hall Los Angeles
Thank you, Jim 1 , (McNolte) for that kind introduction - and for your long and distinguished service to our Nation. I am grateful to Town Hall Los Angeles for hosting me. This Town Hall makes vital contributions to the intellectual and civic life of Los Angeles.
It's great to be in sunny Southern California. Over the past four months I've had the opportunity to travel across our country, from New York to Pennsylvania; Chicago to Atlanta; Topeka to Baton Rouge. I have visited with many families, including young children, who are enduring grief and sorrow because of the events of September 11th.
What I have found, though, is that even though there is sorrow, there is also hope and optimism. I have witnessed the courage, kindness and tremendous patriotism of Americans.
Last Friday my husband and I were in Utah for the Olympics and words simply can't describe the feeling of pride and unity that blanketed the stadium at the opening ceremony.
I have seen national pride since September 11th -- in the flags in front of houses and office buildings; and on our car bumpers and antennas. Those flags are a wonderful sight to behold.
But one tattered flag seems to have captured our nation's spirit better than anything I've seen so far: and that's the Flag from Ground Zero, which was proudly displayed in Salt Lake City.
That flag is a vivid reminder of what America is all about: Whether you live in the City of Angels or the Big Apple; whether you worship on Saturday or Sunday or not at all; whether you cheer for the Dodgers or the Yankees; we stand together as one.
Many of us now think of our lives in terms of before and after the 11th of September.
We can never forget the images of that day, or the lives that were lost, but the experience has strengthened and united our nation.
One of the positive effects of September 11th is that many of us have reassessed our priorities - and the things that are most important to us. Today, I want to talk about two issues that are important to me: the education of our children, and the state of our Nation in the wake of September 11th.
Education has always been part of my life - first as a student, of course, then as a public school teacher and librarian, as the First Lady of Texas, and now at the White House.
I have always loved reading. Story-time was a favorite time of the day for me, as a child, as a mother and of course as a teacher. I was constantly thrilled to see how a good book opened up a new world to children how it captured their minds and hearts and how it sparked their imagination.
These moments are precious memories, because something lasting and important was taking place in the lives of these children. When you read to children, they learn two things: one, that reading is important, and two, that they are important.
Education consistently ranks among the top concerns of the American people. As James Madison once wrote, "Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."
A good education leads to greater opportunity and a better life. And it helps ensure that America will continue to stand for social justice and equal rights, for human dignity and high ideals.
I am thrilled that the No Child Left Behind Act was overwhelmingly passed by Congress and signed into law last month by President Bush. This historic legislation sets high standards and holds schools accountable for results. It ensures local control, and greater flexibility for states and local districts.
It supports reading instruction based on proven methods that ensure that every child learns to read at or above grade level by the third grade.
The law also includes major increases in elementary and secondary school funding. We will spend more on our schools, but we will spend tax-payer dollars wisely, on proven methods - especially when it comes to reading.
The underlying principle of the law is simple and compelling: no child in America will be left behind.
Last year, I launched an initiative called Ready to Read, Ready to Learn. This initiative has two major goals - first, to ensure that all children are ready to read and learn when they start school - and second, to help our nation recruit more teachers, especially in classrooms in our poorest neighborhoods.
This initiative developed, in part, from personal experience. When I was teaching, I saw firsthand that many children didn't have the early learning experiences that develop a love for language and reading. And I learned that not having those experiences can have devastating effects on success in school. I realized that, for many children, being left behind did not begin in elementary school -- it began in the years between diapers and backpacks.
From their first days, our children's reading and learning experiences will shape the way they think and learn all their lives. We have a great mission to ensure that our children's journey through school is as fulfilling and productive as possible. This is their birthright.
The No Child Left Behind Act is the product of bipartisan cooperation. Republicans and Democrats worked together to pass this Act - and as a result, we have begun a new and more hopeful era in public education.
We have also begun a new - and in some ways a more hopeful -- era in the cultural life of America.
President Bush said we are a nation awakened to danger - but we are also a nation awakened to service.
On September 11, we saw the worst of human nature. Since then we've seen the best. We have felt sadness and anger and fear, yet out of those emotions have risen courage, faith and optimism.
Americans responded with generosity and compassion, resolve and fierce determination.
We have seen examples of these renewed values in the acts of ordinary citizens on airliners, including those who gave their lives to save the lives of others.
We have seen it in the bravery of our soldiers and firefighters -- and in the tremendous respect and affection Americans have shown them. We have seen it in the money raised and the blood donated.
We have seen it in the care and concern for our children. I'll never forget, on September 11th, a reporter asked me a question that was on the minds of many Americans.
He asked, "What do you say to the children?"
What I said then, and what I say today, is that we need to reassure our children. Tell them they are safe in their homes and at school. We need to reassure them that many people love them and care for them, and that while there are some bad people in the world, there are many more good people.
We can turn off the television and spend time reading to our children. We can give them the gift of our time and attention.
As I have traveled the country, I have found that our children need to be reassured. When I visit classrooms, even yesterday at Fair Avenue Elementary, children will sidle up to me and whisper, "What do you think about what happened?"
I'll say "I'm sad," and they'll nod and say they are sad too.
Our children are working through the same feelings many of us have - and they have shown remarkable resilience.
We are reminded that little things - and little hands - can make a difference. A month after the attacks, I spent a day teaching at Birney Elementary School in Washington, D.C. I was surprised when a child handed me 169 envelopes containing donations from the students.
The money in those envelopes was intended for America's Fund for Afghan Children. The students knew the President had asked children to send a dollar to help pay for food and medicine for Afghan children.
The children at Birney Elementary might understand hunger. Of the 565 students who attend that school, all but 27 children are eligible for the free or reduced-cost lunch program. And yet they contributed $173 dollars and .64 cents to the Children's Fund.
People of all ages want to help make a difference, but many aren't sure what they can do. President Bush offered an idea in his State of the Union Address. He called on every American to dedicate at least two years - or 4,000 hours over a lifetime - to the service of their neighbors and nation.
He asked Americans to consider joining the USA Freedom Corps. The Freedom Corps will focus on three areas of need: responding to crises at home; rebuilding our communities and extending compassion around the world.
To learn more about the USA Freedom Corps, please visit the website: www - dot - USA freedom corps - dot - gov (www.usafreedomcorps.gov) or you can call 1-877-USA-CORPS.
Another way you can make a difference is by volunteering in your local schools.
Because schools already play an important role in our lives and communities, we recognize and appreciate them more than ever. In the past it's been easier to complain about what was wrong with our schools than to do something to improve them.
I am no exception. When my daughters were in elementary school, you won't believe this, but I (a former public school teacher!) actually called my mother to complain about one of the girls' teachers.
I was upset because she'd sent them home with a note saying they were disorganized, when I thought it was really the teacher who was disorganized.
My mother thought for a moment and said, "Have you gone up to the school to help the teacher?" And of course, I had to tell her no.
Let that be a lesson to you: You're never too old to get taken to school by your mother.
We owe a lot to America's teachers. Their jobs are difficult to begin with; and their extra effort since September -- far above and beyond what is already asked of them - says much about their devotion to our children.
They comfort our children every day.
People who volunteer once usually end up volunteering again and again because they realize during the experience that helping others makes them feel good.
These days, we all need a reason to feel good - about ourselves and about our future.
Many things have changed since September 11th. We are less innocent but more united, more compassionate, and more patriotic.
I'll never forget a moment during the Pentagon memorial service. The choir was singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and the next thing you know we all were singing along. Then, suddenly, a woman in a turquoise dress, way in the back of the crowd of thousands, stood up and began swaying and waving her flag in the air.
Then, we were all on our feet, waving thousands of American flags, united and not ashamed when our eyes filled with tears and our hearts swelled with pride.
Through our collective experience of tragedy and healing, we are relearning our values - and the world is learning about real Americans.
Americans are one people, sharing not only a continent but also a country. We celebrate our diversity under one flag, and the ability to respect and appreciate our differences is a defining trait of this country.
We need to look no further than the City of Los Angeles to appreciate the value of diversityof many cultures, religions and customs.
Our lives were permanently changed last September. We will never be the same again.
But as time passes we will begin to see ourselves and our path more clearly. And one thing remains the same: we are all proud Americans.
Thank you very much for having me.
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