THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
Forest Hills High School Commencement Address
Hempstead, New York
[Some remarks were cut off at the start of the tape.]
I received a letter of invitation to be here today from Crystel Debs, and as you know, Crystel is a member of the class of 2000. And I receive a lot of invitations, but this one caught my eye because she said, "Mrs. Clinton, out of all the thousands of requests that you receive, we stand out as a nationally recognized high school. (Applause.) We've been recipients of the prestigious Blue Ribbon School of Excellence Award, and only one of 10 schools across the nation to receive the Siemens Award for Advanced Placement." It went on and on, and I was so pleased to receive that.
In her letter, Crystel said she promised that if I were able to come, your undivided attention would be fixed upon me. Well, I'm just grateful to have a little of your attention today, because it is a great honor for me to be here. I must say that when I first met Mrs. Levine at a Seder supper during Passover, she told me that she was there on… (inaudible)… orders from student council President Luis Miranda to urge me to accept Crystel's invitation. I felt that it was full court press. Between Mrs. Levine and Crystel and Luis, it was impossible for me to say no. And I am delighted that I could to be here to play a small role in this significant event in your lives.
I want to congratulate and thank Mr. Gulliver and members of the jazz band for such a fine musical accompaniment. And I'm looking forward to hearing the chorus later in the program. And, of course, the people for whom this event is really about are all of you in the class of 2000. But I want to take a minute not only to congratulate you, but I would like all of the parents of the class of 2000 to stand so that we can applaud and congratulate you… (inaudible). (Applause.)
You know, when Chelsea graduated from high school, I certainly remember sitting there and watching with so many other parents and brothers and sisters and grandparents and… (inaudible)… and good friends. And it was just as much a rite of passage for Bill and me as it is for all of you; because you, as parents, are entering a new stage of life as well with this important step of these young men and women.
I am also pleased to be here with Congressman (inaudible), a strong supporter for education in the Congress. I want to thank State Senator Dan Hevesi, and, I guess, Dan, that story you told was too late to influence anybody in any way. I am pleased to be here with Terry Thompson and Superintendent Lee and Deputy Superintendent Starch, and I am particularly pleased to have so many of the faculty here. Thank you to Principal (inaudible), and all members of the faculty of this fine school who really make a difference in the lives of the individual students. Because without the faculty who are sitting here and behind me and in the audience with all of you, Forest Hills would not be a School of Excellence in Education that it has been for so many years.
Our schools are called on so much more than they were in earlier years, and it takes extraordinary faculty and administrative staff to be able to respond to all of those needs. In preparing to be here today, I ran across a letter to the editor, a piece that was written by a former graduate, a man named Jeffrey Page, who wrote about the teachers that he remembered at Forest Hills: "The great ones made us feel like people. They loved their subjects, and they loved us. And through the fog of distant memory, theirs are faces and voices that stay with us forever. They told me that despite the self-doubt that came with awkwardness, acne and angst, I was worthy of respect."
I understand that those feelings which happened to a graduate 40 years ago are still happening today and will as long as we are able to improve and… (inaudible)… show the respect worthy of the important position they hold to our teachers. And I am grateful for all those who are serving. And thinking through my own distant fog of memory about the teachers that I have had, there are so many who have made such an impression and did so much for me. It's not only that teachers—past, present, and future—deserve our respect. I think we have to do more to reassert the respect we feel toward our teachers. It is imperative in our society, particularly imperative in New York City and New York State, to demonstrate to teachers, and, by so demonstrating, reach out to young people to make a clear message that teaching is something that is a necessity in our society, and we intend to reward and thank those who are pursuing teaching… (inaudible).
Terry Thompson and I were just speaking before the ceremony about how we are facing a shortage of teachers. And I'm not going to ask the graduates to raise their hands, but I hope that many of you are thinking of going into teaching. And yet we know that, for many, that seems like a very difficult choice to make. The financial tradeoffs, the sacrifices, the difficult working conditions all militate against people who even desire to become teachers, to choose to do so. And here, in New York City, we have a particular crisis. At least one study has predicted that we will lose up to 70 percent of the teachers in the City schools in the next five to 10 years. Now who will replace those irreplaceable teachers? Well I hope that we can come up with some people who are going to meet that challenge. And I would like to make it a little easier. I would like to see us create a National Teacher Corps that will say to any graduate from a wonderful school like this: "If you're willing to teach for four years when you graduate from college, the United States government will send you anywhere you can go, free, with a full scholarship for those four years of college." I'd also like to see us recruit people from other careers, who are living their professional lives, who have even retired, including trying to entice back to the classroom some retired teachers. You know, I was listening to the rather remarkable record of your athletic accomplishments, and I congratulate all of you of that. And I think that if we give signing bonuses to athletes, we ought to give signing bonuses to teachers to get them back in the classroom and encourage more people to do this important job.
Yet we also know that we face a lot of overcrowding, and I don't think there is a more overcrowded school district—not just in New York, but maybe in the entire country—than the districts here in Queens. I've been in and out of schools in Queens now for a number of years, and very intensely in the last year, and I've been in schools built for 1000 that now have 2000, and I know Forest Hills is on shifts for most of the day. I think that we, as a nation, owe our students and teachers the kind of facilities that every child should have when he or she goes to school. So I would like to see our Federal government provide financial support so that New York City and New York State can construct the schools we need, repair the schools we have, and provide the technology and other equipment that every single school should be equipped with to go into this new century.
Because all anyone has to do is look at the record of what's been accomplished at this school to know that even though you've been stretched very thin with the overcrowding, you have figured out a way to be successful, but there is a point of no return. There aren't very many more students that could be shoe-horned in to Forest Hills. And I know that's true in so many other places. Think about what could happen if we had to put in more students, as are predicted. Would we then have room for all the students here who want to take AP courses and exams? Would we have room for all the students who want to be in the Medical Biology Program? Would we have room for all of the students that need special help with language because so many of the student body have not had English as their first language at home? We must do everything possible to provide the opportunities that you all have taken advantage of here. Because we're going to have so much overcrowding, and so many students on different schedules that it's difficult to make sure that every single student has a chance to participate in classes and extracurricular activities, and athletics. But with strong leadership and dedicated teachers, we can make a difference as long as we get some help. And I think that help needs to be provided so that each of you can think of Forest Hills in the future as continuing to provide the high level of education that it does now. I also hope that the 97% of you in this class that are going off to college will be able to complete school without facing financial hardship. I do not believe any student in New York that is motivated to go to college to have the doors of college closed at any point because of financial hardship. We must do more to provide the scholarships and financial aid that students need to meet the skyrocketing costs of college. I believe we should make college tuition tax-deductible for all working (inaudible) families…. (applause)
Every time I am privileged to make a graduation commencement speech like this, I'm not fortunate enough to know members in most of the classes that I address. But I always feel that special sense of accomplishment for all of you; I find it very moving. As I saw you all walking in, knowing that for many of you, who are first-generation American, who are second-generation, some of you might be the first or one of the very few in your family to graduate from an American high school. You may be the first to go on to college. And you have been motivated and really had to work hard for what you have achieved. There will be many challenges that lie ahead, and I know that you've in this high school to meet them academically, socially, and I wish you Godspeed on your journey.
The other day I was thinking about coming here and I realized how diverse the student body is. You have been given a great gift by attending such a diverse high school. Because the future of America rests on our being able to make the most of our rich diversity; to respect one another; to understand and celebrate our differences while forging a common mission; to make it possible for every American to be successful if he or she is willing to take responsibility. A few months ago, the President and I hosted an event at the White House to celebrate the art of the millennium. We've done nine of these, and we've highlighted all kinds of important advancements of the twentieth-century, looking toward the future as to what we will predict or invent for this century. And we had one very special occasion where we had one of the foremost leaders of the Internet/information/technology world and a geneticist. And they spoke about how the combination of high-speed computers and information technology has been making it possible for us to (inaudible) Human Genome. And there will be many mysteries we will unravel. We will learn to cure diseases, we will help prevent them in the first place, we hope we will find out what lies (inaudible) certain kinds of human behavior. But what we already know is that all human beings are 99.9% the same genetically. If we look around this coliseum, we can see different sizes of people, different shapes and face color, different color eyes, coming from so many different backgrounds, and yet the differences among of us reside at one-tenth of one percent. the real challenge for you as graduates, and every one of us, is how we will make the most of that commonality. How we will help keep bringing people together, trying to get all of us to focus on what makes us the same as human beings, not what separates and divides us for all very superficial reasons. If we in America are able to put that genetic research to work so that we recognize that we are much stronger when each of us has a contribution to make, then I think our future will be even better for your generation than past generations have known. If, however, we choose to be divided or divisive, then what we have built over two centuries will become fragile and endangered.
So I commend you for the hard work that took you to this place, I wish you well in pursuit of your individual choices and careers and the way you will go into the adult world, but I ask you to use this incredible education you have received not only for your own advancement, but to contribute to making it possible for generations of students at Forest Hills to go into an America that is as good as it may be by providing opportunities for everyone willing to work to seize it. Thank you all, and God bless you.
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