In Speech to School Students, Obama Offers Encouragement, Avoids Politics

President Obama delivered his back-to-school pep talk to students across the nation today and avoided any mention of the politics and controversy that had preceeded the planned remarks on education.

The president urged students to take responsibility for their own education because of the critical role they will play in the future of the nation.

"If you quit on school, you're not just quitting on yourself, you're quitting on your country," Obama said in remarks at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va. "What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. The future of America depends on you."

Read the full text of President Obama's prepared remarks.

The president's remarks to the 1,400 students in the high school gym also were broadcast to students across the nation, a move that sparked criticism from some conservative groups and concerned parents who said the president was trying to push a political agenda in his address.

But the president steered clear of politics and partisanship, and his remarks contained a heavy dose of his own personal education experience.

"My father left my family when I was 2 years old, and I was raised by a single mom who had to work and had struggled at times to pay the bills and wasn't always able to give us the things that other kids had. There were times when I missed having a father in my life," he said. "So I wasn't always as focused as I should have been on school, and I did some things that I'm not proud of, and I got in more trouble than I should have. And my life could have easily taken a turn for the worse."

The president said he was "lucky" and got "a lot of second chances."

There is "no excuse for not trying," Obama cautioned.

"But at the end of the day, the circumstances of your life -- what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you've got going on at home -- none of that is an excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude in school. That's no excuse for talking back to your teacher or cutting class or dropping out of school," he said.

Obama's back-to-school speech was expected to be viewed by nearly 56 million school children across the country. Many school districts and schools were being flexible and leaving the decision about viewing the speech up to teachers and parents. Most schools that were not showing the speech said that was because of scheduling issues or lack of proper technology to stream the speech live.

In Indiana, most schools were leaving the decision to show the speech up to teachers' discretion. In Minnesota, the state's Association of School Administrators recommended against showing the president's speech but the president of the state's teachers' union urged principals to show the speech anyway for its educational value.

Closer to home, students in the District of Columbia were encouraged by teachers and principals to watch. According to spokeswoman Jennifer Calloway, no schools had chosen not to show it and the vast majority of schools watched it live. When asked about parent requests to have their children opt-out, Calloway said, "It hasn't even been an issue."

Some schools did not show the speech simply because it conflicted with a scheduled lunch hour for students.

Obama Warns Students to Be Careful with Facebook, YouTube

Before his remarks, Obama met with a group of ninth graders to talk about the importance of education. In a wide-ranging question and answer period, the president spoke candidly about how his father's absence affected him and offered some "practical" advice for students considering careers in politics.

A student named Jesse said he wanted to be president some day and asked what he needs to know.

"I want everybody here to be careful about what you post on Facebook 'cause in the YouTube age, whatever you do it will be pulled up again later somewhere in your life," Obama said. "And when you're young, you make mistakes and you do some stupid stuff and I've been hearing a lot about young people, they're posting stuff on Facebook and then suddenly they go apply for a job and someone's got to search."

The president went on to urge students to work hard, and to follow their passions. The best public servants are the ones who become active in causes that interest them, and then later run for office, he said.

Another student, whose parents are divorced, asked Obama whether he would be president if his father Barack Obama, Sr. -- who abandoned him and his mother when he was 2 -- had been present during his childhood.

The president said his father's absence forced him "to grow up a little faster," to "raise himself a little more" and to make more mistakes. It all made him stronger, he said.

An administration official said that Wakefield High School was chosen because of its diversity and student performance. Nearly half the student body is Hispanic, a quarter are African-American and 11 percent are Asian.

White House Pushes Back Against Critics

The White House released a copy of the president's prepared remarks Monday after some Republicans and conservative critics assailed the White House for trying to spread liberal propaganda, though previous presidents have addressed students.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday its "sad" that "the political back and forth has intruded on anyone speaking to school children and teachers and parents about the responsibilities that they have as we enter a new school year."

"That many in this country politically would rather start an animal house food fight rather than inspire kids to stay in school, to work hard, to engage parents to stay involved and to ensure that the millions of teachers that are making great sacrifices continue to be the best in the world, it's a sad state of affairs," Gibbs said in a news briefing.

Critics also latched on wording in the lesson plans, drafted by the Department of Education, which suggested that students, after watching the president's speech, write a letter about how they could "help the president." The department removed the language after it created a heated debate on whether the Obama administration was trying to indoctrinate students.

President George H.W. Bush made a similar request in 1991, when he when he asked an eighth-grade classroom while addressing the nation's students to "Write me a letter about ways you can help us achieve our goals."

But because of the controversy surrounding Obama's speech, many parents objected to their kids watching and even threatened to pull them out of school if the address was shown, leading some schools to pull back from showing it live.

Some Republicans came to the defense of the president. Former first lady Laura Bush said she supported the speech and that the president certainly has a place to talk to students.

"I think there is a place for the president of the United States to talk to school children and encourage school children, and I think there are a lot of people that should do the same," Bush said in an interview with CNN. "And that is encourage their own children to stay in school and to study hard and to try to achieve the dream that they have."

Lamar Alexander, who was Bush's education secretary in 1991 and is currently a senator from Tennessee, also defended Obama's plan. He said today on "Fox News Sunday" that schools should use the president's speech as an opportunity.

"If I were a teacher, I'd take advantage of it, and I'd put up Lincoln and Eisenhower and Reagan and teach about the presidency," Alexander said.

ABC News' Tahman Bradley, Matthew Lorotonda and Sunlen Miller contributed to this report.