"Every commencement is a day of celebration. But this one is especially hopeful," Obama told the graduating class during its graduation exercise. "That's because some people say that schools like BTW just aren't supposed to succeed in America. You'll hear them say, 'The streets are too rough in those neighborhoods.' Or 'The schools are too broken.' Or 'Those kids can't learn.'"
Booker T. Washington High School won the Race to the Top commencement competition. Since 2007, the graduation rate at Booker T. Washington High School has risen from 55 percent to 81 percent.
"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," Obama said, also recognizing the school's administration and teachers, and the students' parents in pushing the teens to succeed. "You decided that you weren't going to be defined by where you came from, but by where you want to go -- by what you want to achieve, by the dreams you hope to fulfill."
The skills they gained through education -- empathy, discipline, problem-solving and critical thinking -- "don't just change how the world sees us. They change how we see ourselves, Obama said. "That is the power of your education. That is the power of the diploma you receive today."
Dropping in on the graduating class backstage before his remarks, Obama said he expected "great things" from them because high school graduation "is the beginning and not the end," he told the seniors.
Obama told the students during his visit that while they weren't born with "a silver spoon in your mouth," they've demonstrated determination, character and a willingness to work hard.
Students overwhelmed by Obama's surprise pre-ceremony visit were comforted by the president as he shook hands and patted the graduates on the back before the ceremony began.
In reaching this milestone -- with some students being the first in their families to attend college -- all students shared something in common -- grit, the president said.
"Yes, you're from South Memphis. Yes, you've always been underdogs. No one has handed you a thing. But that also means that whatever you accomplish in your lives, you'll have earned it," Obama said. "Whatever rewards and joys you reap, you'll appreciate them that much more because they will have come through your sweat and tears; the product of your efforts and talents. You've shown more grit and determination in your childhoods than a lot of adults ever will. That's who you are."
Saying he knows they will do well, Obama closed by thanking the students "for inspiring me."