Commentary: Obama's speech offers a lesson in civility

President Barack Obama's face came in grainy, projected on the white board in Room 45 at East High School Tuesday morning. Students crowded in behind the rows of tables. A few teachers slipped in the door.

I'd come to East, where I graduated 13 years ago, with several other reporters to watch the president's speech with teacher Michael Thompson's history class. My goal was to see the speech, which had become a lightning rod for controversy over the last week, and to get some insight into the ideological rift that has kept cropping up in our city and country in the months since the president took office.

For those who missed it, a national debate about Obama's speech to schools went local last week. A hundred or so people e-mailed Superintendent Carol Comeau to say they felt the president's speech was pushing a political agenda. Some told her they heard about it on the Fox News Channel. Others forwarded messages they'd been sent by national political groups, using words like "indoctrination" and making comparisons between Obama and Hitler. Comeau told teachers they could air the speech, but allowed students whose parents objected to opt out.

The fight was the latest in a series of hot national controversies that have come home. All of them -- the tax day tea parties last spring, the health care and stimulus protests last month -- seemed to share one characteristic: perceptions of the facts from one side to the other were wildly different. This time, one side was deeply suspicious of the president's motives, while the other saw that suspicion as disrespect.

Before the speech, Thompson asked students who didn't want to see the speech to raise their hands. Two hands snaked up. He excused them to the classroom next door. The other students, 25 or so, settled in.

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