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Published Sep. 9, 2009

Last week I found myself standing in front of a fourth-grade class in Georgia, where my best-friend-since-braces is a teacher. Always on the hunt for new experiences for her students, she asked if on my visit I would talk to them about working at a newspaper.

Hands in the air, these bright, lively kids had great questions and even better story ideas. When the bell rang to release them for the long weekend, they actually groaned "Noooooooo," which said a lot about their teacher. I noticed a dozen roses on her desk; turned out she just made finalist for teacher of the year.

How sad, I found myself thinking later, that kids like these might miss out on an interesting, historic moment, and for nothing but politics.

President Barack Obama made his controversial speech live to classes nationwide Tuesday, sending subversive messages like "fulfill your responsibilities" and "really work at it." I listened closely, and as far as I could tell he did not slip subliminals between sentences so children would beg parents to support health care reform. Then again, I haven't played the speech backward yet.

Across the nation, wingnuts railed about Obama plotting to recruit children to his socialist ways via this speech. Some parents balked. Some schools caved. Bad enough that "debate" on health care has devolved into shout-downs - we're apparently willing to use kids as weapons, too.

This is the leader of our nationwe're talking about here. Maybe some of these students will recall for their own kids years from now how the president said every one of them was good at something. (Then again, Twitter, Facebook and Skype will be as old-school as eight tracks by then, so maybe a face-to-face like this won't seem remarkable.)

But some among us decided that if you disagree, you should also refuse to listen. Some wanted to clap hands over children's ears for fear they might hear new ideas. And what a sad lesson that is.

Maybe the way this president connects with kids makes some people nervous. He's a rock star, a guy easy with the Internet, a grownup who can invoke the early failures of Michael Jordan or J.K. Rowling for inspiration without sounding all "back in my day."

As for disagreement with the president: been there. I asked myself if I would feel the same were this speech by the previous occupant, a man whose actions truly scared me. Yes. If the person running the country wants to tell kids why it's important to stay in school, it can only be good, regardless of whether there's an R or D after his name. It's respect for the office, if not the man in it.

I would hope after Tuesday's positive, utterly nonpartisan speech, those who raised a stink would have the grace to feel a little embarrassed. I hope for those who heard it, something resonated, maybe the part about his father being gone, maybe about other teenagers doing great things in tough circumstances.

In the classroom in Georgia last week, the kids gone, I joked with my teacher friend about starting a whisper campaign about her competing teacher of the year finalists. But no, no dirty politics.

When I asked her about the president's upcoming speech, her answer was firm. Her students would not miss it, my (Republican, by the way) friend said, which maybe gives you an idea about the wisdom of those roses.