President Barack Obama congratulates a student as diplomas are presented at the commencement ceremony for Booker T. Washington High School on Monday in Memphis. After the school administration implemented educational changes, the graduation rate jumped from 55 percent in 2007 to nearly 82 percent in 2010. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
By JIM KUHNHENN
MEMPHIS — Offering a lift to a flood beleaguered city, President Barack 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, 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, 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, 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 Obama.
“You’ve shown more grit and determination in your childhoods than a lot of adults ever will,” 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 African American, that he was two years old when his own father left home, leaving him to be raised by his mother amid economic struggles. 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.
“I like the fact that he told us that he’s the same as us, that he came from where we came from, and that we can still succeed,” said 18-year-old Christopher Redmond, who says he plans to study pharmacy.
Obama seemed to enjoy the moment as much as the students. He surprised them with a personal visit as they waited in a curtained off space for the commencement exercises to begin. They greeted him with shrieks while some seemed overcome and wiped away tears.
“You’ve now become role models for all the young people coming in behind you,” said the president.
Just beyond the Cook Convention Center where Obama spoke, the Mississippi River stretched three miles across to Arkansas. Its typical breadth is half a mile.
Obama met privately with families affected by the flooding, before addressing the graduates.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama met for about 35 minutes with flood victims, local officials and first responders. Nanny Williams, an unemployed mother living with her daughter and granddaughter, described being flooded out of her house, forcing her family into a community shelter, Carney said. Another woman, Rose Hunt, told the president that prayer spared her house, which became a refuge for her son, who had to abandon his home.
The river crested at Memphis last week, just inches short of the record set in 1937. Some low-lying neighborhoods were inundated, but the city’s high levees protected the rest.
Associated Press writer Adrian Sainz contributed to this report.