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Obama's message came in more clearly than broadcast

September 8, 2009 | 12:38 pm

Lanow.obama Technical difficulties marred the local official attempt to hear President Obama’s speech to the nation’s students, but the problems did not entirely scramble the message this morning at Commonwealth Elementary in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Neither cable, Internet, radio nor a roomful of sheepish and harried adults could bring most of the president’s remarks to Alice Cho’s class of 27 fifth-graders at the Koreatown campus.

The apparent culprit was interference from antennas of a line of television vans parked in front of the school. Everything had worked perfectly in a Friday test, district officials asserted.

At 8:50 a.m., 10 minutes before the speech, L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines glanced at his watch.

“Has anybody got a radio?” he suggested, calling forth the technology of his own youth. (Cortines recently turned 77.)

Rabbit ears rapidly appeared on the scene, but were no help.

L.A. school board President Monica Garcia took over, soliciting questions from students for U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Anthony W. Miller, who was on hand.

“What do you think encouraged him to run for president?” one student wanted to know.

“I think our president believes in America and that America can continue to be a better place. He had a vision,” began Miller.

President Obama then flashed briefly on a screen at the front of the room, saying something about speaking in Virginia, before the signal went out again.

“Is Virginia far away or close to us?” Garcia asked the students.

“Far,” came the correct answer.

As a district administrator fiddled with a radio dial, Garcia offered that, “We’re learning when Plan A doesn’t work, you try Plan B.”

Miller jumped in: “That’s one of the things the president is going to talk about. Sometimes things aren’t easy.”

Finally, the stentorian tones of the president filled the room through the speakers of a pink-and-white Hello Kitty cassette radio.

“Maybe you could be an innovator or inventor,” Obama said. He told students they might develop the next iPhone or become a mayor or a Supreme Court justice. But whatever the goal: “I guarantee you will need an education to do it. …You cannot drop out of school and just drop into a good job. …The future of America depends on you.”

Then a radio commentator broke in: “That’s good. No excuses.” The commentator then explained that it was important to listen to the speech before criticizing it, which, it seems, he was prepared to do at just that moment.

A district official hastily turned the dial, vainly trying to find another station.

At last, a video feed of Obama streamed into the room.

“Your goal can be something as simple as doing your homework,” the president said.

The image suddenly froze until the president reappeared saying something about the flu and kids washing their hands. The broadcast went dark again.

At this point, Miller decided to read the rest of the speech himself.

“I’m clearly not the president, but that’s the best I can do,” he said.

When he reached the “God bless America” conclusion, the students applauded politely.

But they managed to get the gist.

“I think the president is trying to tell us if we give up on something we want to do, then we won’t get to do it. But if we try harder and learn more we will get to achieve that,” said Bastian Geiser, 10, who wants to be a soccer player or an archeologist.

His parents had been delighted to learn that Obama would address students.

“My mom is happy I’m here. She voted for Obama. Watching the president live speaking to all the students I think is pretty cool,” Bastian said.

Ditto for Saad Tohid, 9, who plans to be a rocket scientist.

“My parents felt it was a good idea because I might learn more about the nation and how I can learn,” Saad said. “I think it was a very good way for the kids to learn how they could do better.”

No one was more inspired than 10-year-old Odalys Ramos.

“My goal is to be the president,” she declared after hearing the partial speech. “It made me proud when I heard Obama. I would like to help the students, too, like he would like to help us. The speech that he made encouraged me to be president and help the country.”

Her parents, who did not graduate from college, had endorsed the idea of the president addressing students: “They said it would be a nice thing to do and would encourage me to do something great and help me with my education.”

-- Howard Blume

Photo: U.S. Deputy Education Secretary Robert Miller, right, and School Board President Monica Garcia react as Comonwealth Elementary School fifth-graders raise their hands to say they plan to go to college as they discuss education and President Obama's speech. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times.

Correction: An earlier version of this posting incorrectly stated the age of L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines.