Washington--If speeches could be graded like test papers, then students at one public junior high school here would have given President George Bush’s unprecedented national address about drugs to school children a failing mark.
Mr. Bush’s 15-minute speech, carried on national television last week, was seen by millions of students in public and private schools across the country. It came only a week after he unveiled the first national strategy to fight drugs.
“Saying ‘no’ won’t make you a nerd,” he said. “It won’t make you a loser. In fact, it will make you more friends than drugs every will.’'
In the library of Lincoln Junior High School, however, students gave the President’s speech, filled with exhortations to rely on friends and family to resist the desire to use drugs, a cool reception.
“He doesn’t know what’s happening,” said Romeo, a 7th-grade student “He’s safe in the White House, but it’s not safe for us, because we might get shot.”
Students at Lincoln, located in central Washington, come from neither the city’s best nor worst neighborhoods. However, in a discussion session after the speech, many indicated that they were intimately familiar with the violent drug culture that dominates many of the city’s poor and working-class areas.
Students at this 800-pupil school, almost all of whom are either black or Hispanic, were reluctant to give their names or to be photographed. A teacher said that some feared retribution from drug dealers if they could be identified.
Many said they felt the President’s speech would not improve the drug problem. Some also said they felt that Mr. Bush didn’t truly care about the issue.
“He’s only concerned about him and his wife,” said a girl in the eighth grade.
“They look to him to make the speeches because he’s the president. He can say what he wants to do but he won’t do it,” said another student.
“The hustlers don’t pay the president no attention,” said an 8th-grade girl.
Although the President urged his young audience to “talk to your families” and to help friends who may be in trouble, the students at Lincoln implied that Mr. Bush’s suggestions may be impractical for many.
“I say you can’t depend upon your family,” said Brian, a 7th-grade student. “I used to live next door to a family where the mother was using it, the daughter was addicted, the son, the uncles, the aunts. So you can’t depend upon your family. Once one started, they all got caught into it.”
“Sometimes friends have friends that hustle but they won’t do anything about it because they’re lonely,” said Jose.
“Friends help friends make money,” said a 9th-grade boy.
Many students said the drug problem is closely linked to the values of the street, which places a premium on material goods.
“I want to ask you a question,” said Romeo. “Which one would you go with: a hustler that has a lot of money or somebody that works at McDonalds?”
“Most girls would go with the hustler, because they want the fur jackets, the Adidas, the leather bags, everything,” he continued. “They won’t go with the guy from McDonalds because he won’t have a lot of money.”
“Hustlers buy their girls clothes,” added an 8th-grade girl.
While noting that the President did not mention drug education in his speech, the students said they doubted that school interventions could make a difference.
“I don’t think drug education helps very much,” said Brian. “I know more about drugs from home than what I can learn here.”
“I can go outside on the corner and learn,” he continued, “much more than I can learn here.”
“I say, bring back the death penalty,” said a ninth-grade student.
“Drugs ain’t going to stop if you just put them in jail,” he said, while some students said “amen” and clapped in approval.
A version of this article appeared in the September 20, 1989 edition of Education Week as Streetwise Students Give Bush Speech Failing Grade