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Remarks by the First Lady Honoring the 2016 Class of the National Student Poets Program

September 08, 2016

MRS. OBAMA: Well, good afternoon, and welcome to the White House. Yay! We're here in the White House. And we are beyond thrilled to have you all here today.

I want to start by thanking a few people who helped make this day possible. Of course, I want to start with Megan Beyer and the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. Yay! (Applause.) The Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, Urban Word, Youth Speaks. (Audience snaps fingers.) Yeah, I forgot we snap here, too. (Laughter.)

And I want to give a very special shout-out and thank you to Olivia Morgan, who has just done all the great work to make this possible. (Applause.) This is not on the teleprompter -- but, Olivia, we couldn't have done this without you. Your passion, your energy, your focus, your vision has just been tremendous. Barack and I think the world of you -- and your whole family. And we love you and are so grateful for everything you've -- okay, we're not crying. (Laughter.) We're not going to cry. But, Olivia, thank you so much.

And I also want to thank our distinguished guest, an Abstract Poet himself, the one, the only -- Q-Tip. (Applause.) Looking good! So good to have you. Now, when my kids look up and go, "Q-Tip is coming?" -- I know we're into something. (Laughter.) They usually don't care what I do here. (Laughter.) But they were excited that you were going to be here. They're at school. I also want to give a huge thank you to our wonderful jurors who helped to do the hard work. (Applause.) All of you who are here today, thank you. Thank you.

And last but not least, I want to recognize the young people who are up on not the stage, but in front of this fireplace with me: our fifth class of National Student Poets. Let's give them another round of applause. (Applause.)

I know we're proud of these guys. And I got a chance to take some photos with their families, proud families. I know you all are excited to be here and watch your young people soar. Thank you for creating these young people. (Laughter.) To all the families, way to go.

Well, I have to say that this event -- I've said this too many times, because we're celebrating a lot of "last" here this year -- but this is the last time that we're going to have the pleasure of welcoming a class of National Student Poets to the White House, at least under this administration. So I'm feeling a little melancholy here, because this has truly been an honor and a privilege and a joy.

So before we get into the readings from these amazing poets, I just want to take a moment to reflect on how we got started and why we're so committed to lifting up young people through the arts.

Back when Barack and I first got to the White House, we knew that we wanted to use this incredible platform of the White House to inspire our young people to dream really big for themselves, to think about what their lives could look like beyond what their everyday existence is like. We wanted to ignite their ambition and also celebrate their talent, because there are so many talented young people all over this country. It just blows my mind.

We also knew that schools across the country, and so many of them art and music classes, were being cut back or eliminated completely. And what we knew is that loss was pretty devastating, because we all know what the evidence shows is that when kids are involved in arts, they do better in school and in life. They have higher grades. They have fewer behavioral problems. We talk about this at almost every event. They're more likely to go to college, to graduate, and go on and do wonderful things. So we know that the arts are critical.

Barack and I also happen to be pretty huge poetry fans ourselves. My husband considers himself kind of a poet -- (laughter) -- but we'll see. We'll see. Maybe when he's done he'll write one for me. (Laughter.) You hear that, honey? (Laughter.) So that's kind of where the idea of the National Student Poet program came from. And, of course, having Olivia on our team, also a passionate person, has helped to make this happen.

So we decided that we wanted to honor five outstanding poets each year and then give them the mic here in the White House so that they could inspire countless other young people to follow in their footsteps. And since we started the program, we've received over 70,000 submissions from applicants -- 70,000. Just so you know, the competition is fierce. (Laughter.) It's not like you just happened up here. A lot of people have applied over the years. And we've named 20 national poets. And these talented young people have done so much over these years. They've traveled the country, many of them the world, and they've been sharing the magic of poetry with others.

And this year, we were proud to double the size of this program by naming the first class of five National Youth Spoken Word Ambassadors, who are here with us today. (Applause.) You guys, stand up. Together, these talented students are what we call living, breathing proof of the power of poetry to transform young people's lives.

We all know that being a kid today can be a little hard. It can be tough, especially when you're a teenager and you're dealing with emotions and experiences that can be overwhelming, so say the least. It's tempting at this age to just close down and shut out the rest of the world, especially when the world can feel so ugly at times. But for so many people, writing poetry helps them open up, even in the face of all kinds of challenges and obstacles in their lives.

And as Q-Tip once put it, he said, "The world is kinda cold and the rhythm is my blanket." And you don't have to be a renowned artist like Q-Tip to try your hand at poetry. You don't need any special equipment -- that's the beauty of it. You don't have to have any advanced qualifications. All you need to be is willing to work hard and have a whole lot of courage -- because it is never easy to expose your inner thoughts and rawest emotions, let alone in front of a lot of cameras at the White House. (Laughter.) They're like -- it's going to be okay! It's going to be fun. (Laughter.) It's going to be fun.

Maya -- where's Maya? You put it best. These are your words, I'm told: "On the stage, there is no way to leave unnoticed." Did you say that?

MAYA EASHWARAN: Yes. (Laughter.)

MRS. OBAMA: Thank God. I was going to check with my speechwriter. (Laughter.) But if you can summon that courage and go through draft after draft of writing -- which is painful, I know -- and then finally stand up on this stage and speak your truth -- well, here is what we know: After all of that, you are ready for anything. That's the beauty of it. You're ready to graduate from high school and go to college, and chase after whatever dream you have. If you can be here, you can do anything, right? Small steps. And I believe that every young person in this country deserves those kinds of opportunities.

So I have one request that I make of all of our student poets, and I'm going to make that of you all here today. I want you to go out there and share your gifts with others. That's your job now, all right? After all the fun -- there was a reception, right? We fed you a little bit. Maybe there will be cookies. In exchange -- (laughter) -- I want you to show other young people the power of taking risks and opening themselves up to the world. Talk to your teachers about bringing poetry into the classroom if they're not doing it. Make sure that folks in your communities understand why it's so vitally important to have the arts in our schools.

And that might be asking a lot, because you guys are going to have busy years ahead. This year is going to be busy. You're going to be juggling your schoolwork and your writing with the speaking engagements that I know you're going to have all across the country. So it's going to be a busy time. But we chose you because we know you can handle this. And if you don't believe me, just listen to the stories of some of the alums of this program, many of whom are here with us today. Where are our alums? Yay! (Applause.) You guys. We've got alums representing all four prior years of the National Student Poets initiative.

One of these young people used poetry -- which she refers to as "power-tree" -- to help heal her community in the aftermath of a devastating school shooting. Another National Student Poet conducted poetry workshops at veterans' centers, and he helped one veteran fulfill her dream of putting her poetry to music. He even accompanied her on piano while she sang. Other student poets designed classes for military kids, taught workshops to incarcerated women, and brought poetry to senior citizens with Alzheimer's disease.

So, big shoes to fill. But if you follow their lead and keep on following your passion for poetry wherever it may take you -- well, you never know where you might end up.

And that was certainly true for a spoken word poet that I know -- someone who's not that much older than many of these guys. I'm older than him. But this young man performed at the first-ever White House poetry jam that my husband and I hosted back here in 2009 in the East Room. And this kid got up on stage and started rapping about Alexander Hamilton. And he blew us away. That guy's name is Lin-Manuel Miranda. And he expanded that song into one of the most extraordinary pieces of art that I -- and probably so many others -- have ever seen. (Applause.)

So that just goes to show you that if you can make it to the White House, you make it anywhere. (Laughter.) And I'm excited to see where you all end up and what you achieve in the years ahead. I want you all to have fun today. This is your day. Being in the White House at this moment, doing what you're about to do, is something you should treasure. So I want you all to breathe deep and just enjoy it. We all love you. We support you. You all are winners. This is your stage, your house.

So, I am proud of you, okay? All right. (Applause.) So with that, we're going to get going. Thank you all so much. Thank you for your hard work. Olivia, thank you so much. You all, God bless. Take it away.

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady Honoring the 2016 Class of the National Student Poets Program Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320876

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