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A Notable Guest Dispenses Advice to Clinton Students

The former president, during a visit to his namesake elementary school in Compton, challenges children to follow their dreams.

September 16, 2003|Gregg Jones | Times Staff Writer

A day after rallying Democrats to defeat a recall against Gov. Gray Davis, former President Clinton on Monday visited a Compton elementary school named for him and challenged 800 students to "dream big dreams and believe you can live them."

Clinton avoided mentioning the recall even though Davis and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante made a rare joint appearance at the event. The two even posed with a guest for a souvenir picture but didn't address the crowd.

The former president's silence on the recall stood in sharp contrast to his remarks at a Los Angeles church service Sunday, when he warned Californians against voting for the recall and becoming "a laughingstock, a carnival or the beginning of a circus in America where we just throw people out as soon as they make a tough decision."

Instead, Clinton extolled the virtues of education when he addressed students, teachers and invited guests at William Jefferson Clinton Elementary School on East Compton Boulevard.

Education is "the key to everything you want to do," said Clinton, who was paying his first visit to the school.

"There are towns and roads and all manner of things named for former presidents," Clinton said. "But there is nothing, nothing in the world I would rather have named for me than this school, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart."

Clinton Elementary, which opened in January, is the first school built by the troubled Compton Unified School District in more than 35 years. In 1993, state education officials seized control of the district, which was beset by corruption, financial problems and low test scores. Local control was restored in December.

Last month, the district's Centennial High School was stripped of its accreditation by the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges after a report found deficiencies in classroom instruction, facilities and academic counseling.

Before Clinton took the podium Monday, district Superintendent Jesse Gonzales, school Principal Virginia Ward-Roberts and student Lizeth Rosas presented the former president with a drawing of the school and a golf shirt, jacket and baseball cap adorned with the school's name and emblem.

One of the speakers who preceded Clinton to the podium was Lizeth, a fifth-grader who recalled how Clinton's trip to the White House as a 16-year-old -- where he met President John F. Kennedy -- had inspired his political career. She wondered aloud whether her encounter with Clinton might similarly affect her life, prompting Clinton to remark later: "Well, I guarantee you someday we will elect a Hispanic, woman president of the United States, and it might as well be her."

Clinton encouraged the students to "believe you can live your dreams. I have lived a totally improbable life. I was born to a widowed mother in a little town in Arkansas and a state that had never produced a president. But my mother made me believe I could do anything I wanted to. And so can you, every one of you. But you have to believe."

Noting the school's multi-ethnic student body, the former president said Clinton Elementary "represents the diversity and strength of America, but we have to figure how to make the most of it."

Clinton noted that California was the first state in the nation "that has no majority race or ethnic group" and the first state without a majority population of European descent.

Clinton said he had spent much of his presidency trying to convince people at the center of conflicts around the world "that we have to share the future, we have to share responsibility, share benefits and share values."

"The lessons you teach in this school are the lessons that people all over the world fail to learn on every continent and that's why we've got 90% of the problems the world has today," Clinton said.

Clinton also paid tribute to the teachers who had shaped his life.

"I'm just writing my memoirs now, and I can tell you my teachers come out big -- from kindergarten to grade school to high school to college to law school," he said. "I write endlessly about my teachers, about the lessons I learned and the things they taught me."

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