- The Washington Times - Monday, May 16, 2011

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. | Offering a lift to a flood-beleaguered city, President Obama hailed the transformation of a once struggling but venerable Memphis high school Monday, telling its graduates, “You inspire me, that’s why I’m here.”

With the Mississippi River still lapping near the top of the city’s protective levees, Mr. Obama also used the trip to meet privately with families, emergency personnel and volunteers confronting the highest floodwaters in generations.

For the president, the trip was a chance to promote his education agenda while also attending to the latest natural disaster the snow melt and rain that has sent a torrent of water down the Mississippi, topping earthworks and forcing flooding along its path.

In a city known as the heart of the blues, Mr. Obama addressed students from a high school in a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood where graduation rates have risen impressively in just three years.

“You’ve always been underdogs,” the president told the cheering Booker T. Washington High School graduates, arrayed in bright green and yellow mortar boards and gowns. “Nobody’s handed you a thing. But that also means that whatever you accomplish in your life, you’ll have earned it.”

Inside the convention center, his commencement audience extended well beyond the 150 graduating students and their families, attracting some of the city’s and Tennessee’s top political leadership.

Borrowing the refrain from his own 2008 presidential campaign, Mr. Obama said: “Well, we are here today because every single one of you stood up and said, ‘Yes, we can.’ Yes, we can learn. Yes, we can succeed.”

The school won a national competition to secure a graduation address from the president by illustrating how it overcame a history of disciplinary problems and high dropout rates and graduated 82 percent of its students, turning into a sanctuary for troubled kids. Innovative changes included separate freshmen academies for boys and girls and a greater choice not only of advanced placement classes, but vocational studies as well.

A video submitted with the school’s entry in the competition included footage of a boy running in despair toward the camera as a bulldozer tore down apartment buildings in his neighborhood - a symbol of the hopelessness that afflicted it. On Monday, that same teenager, graduating senior Christopher Dean, had the distinction of introducing Mr. Obama.

“You’ve shown more grit and determination in your childhoods than a lot of adults ever will,” Mr. Obama said.

Dating back to 1873, the school was the city’s first to educate blacks, earning a distinguished history. Among its graduates are former NAACP executive director Benjamin Hooks, evangelist and songwriter Lucie Campbell, and Willie Herenton, the first elected black mayor of Memphis.

The president personalized his graduation message, reminding the graduates, all black, that he was 2 years old when his own father left home, leaving him to be raised by his mother amid economic struggles. Mr. Obama said his mother and his grandparents pressed him to excel.

“I’m lucky they kept pushing,” he 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.”

The message appeared to take hold.

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