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 You are in: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice > Former Secretaries of State > Former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell > Speeches and Remarks > 2001 > February

Groundhog Job Shadow Day

Secretary Colin L. Powell
Washington, DC
February 2, 2001

Mr. Stone: Hello, my name is Johnny Stone. I go to Ballou Senior High School. I'm a senior and my school is in D.C. I am the Secretary -- I mean, I am -- (laughter). I am Secretary Powell's e-mentee. We exchange e-mails on a regular basis, addressing my schoolwork and life in general. It has been a pleasure this past year to be able to get to know Secretary Powell through e-mail exchanges. I also really enjoyed the opportunity to shadow him today. He's a nice guy. (Laughter.) And cool, too. (Laughter.) Now I would like to introduce my friend, my mentor, the Secretary of State, Colin Powell. (Applause.)

Secretary Powell: Well, thank you very much, Johnny. It's a great pleasure to be with you and all of your friends here today. And ladies and gentlemen, I welcome you all to the State Department. Johnny and I have been virtual mentors. This is the first time we've actually met, but for the last six months or so we have been e-mailing each other, so he has been my virtual mentor. And about once every few days or every week or so, I would get an e-mail from him and I would send him an e-mail, and he would tell me about what he was doing, and I would tell him about the trouble I was in. (Laughter.) And so, finally, I have the opportunity to meet my e-mentor, and hopefully it is the beginning of a longer relationship.

I want to welcome you all to the State Department as part of the State Department's contribution to Groundhog Job Shadow Day, a program that I deeply believe in and I look forward to every year, where we bring youngsters from communities all across America into the workplace. It could be a workplace such as the State Department, it could be at a hotel, it could be at a factory, it could be in an office building, it could be anywhere. But the purpose that brings all these things together and connects them is that we want young people to see what adults, what old people like me, do for a living, and what we have to do to get through our daily lives in order to perform our jobs.

And hopefully, if you spend the better part of a day watching me or watching Ambassador Boucher do his work with the press, or all of the other members of the State Department who are here today that you have been shadowing, hopefully it will give you some insight and some inspiration with respect to what you need to be doing when you go back to school, what you need to be applying yourself to, what skills you'd better be working on. Even though you might only be 11, 12, 13, 14 or 15 years old, that early in life you need to see what successful people are doing so that you can put yourself on that path to success.

Because at the end of the day, where you end up in life is a function of what you do, not what adults do for you. We'll try to help you, give you all the assistance we can, we'll love you, we'll give you clothes, we'll give you food, we'll give a warm place to live. We will give you inspiration, we will expose you to faith, we will point you in the right direction, we will try to give you character so that you do the right things in life, that you believe in yourself. We'll try to give you access to competence where you can learn.

But at the end of the day, each and every one of you has to make a choice. Look in a mirror, look at yourself, look deep in your own heart and make a choice, a choice that says: I'm going to be a success, I don't care what obstacles are thrown in my way, I don't care what people say about me, I don't care about anything anyone does to try to slow me down; I'm going to be a success. I'm going to be a success because I can be a success, because God has given me a strong body and given me a healthy mind and given me the ability to make choices. And I'm going to use these tools given to me by God and my parents to make the right kinds of choices to get the character that says I'm not going to do that because it's wrong and I'm going to do that because it is right. That is what character is all about: making those correct choices in life.

And we hope that in the course of this kind of experience you will meet successful people who have been making correct choices throughout their lives. And I think what each and every one of you has probably found out already, or will find out in the course of the rest of this afternoon, is that for those of us here in the State Department we work very, very, very hard. I had Johnny and Isaiah up to my office earlier with some other youngsters, and I was describing what my day is like. I come in and there's a box on the left side of my desk all filled with stuff -- paper, lots of paper. All these adults you see around the room against the walls, they're up all night writing paper that I have to read the next morning. (Laughter.)

And I need a paper for everything I do. A meeting with a foreign minister of another country. He wants to hear from me what the United States of America thinks. I've got to read the paper. I have to make sure that I can take that information that exists all over this Department and all over the government, get it on a piece of paper so that I can read it, so that I can then express it to a foreign visitor who has come from a long way away to hear from the United States Government. Or it might be the president of a country or it might be our own President that I have to go see when I have to go over the White House to see President Bush. So all day long I am studying. All day long I am reading. All day long I am writing. All day long I am speaking. All day long I am using the English language in one way or another to either gather knowledge or to deliver knowledge.

So the one thing I want you to take away from this day is the importance, the absolute importance, of the English language in your lives. Master English. Learn to speak it well. Don't be afraid of reading. Read all the time. Read anything you can get your hands on, anything that will allow you to become a better reader. Because only when you can read well, only when you understand what you are then reading, can you then take in knowledge. And that is the beginning of real wisdom. Get that knowledge. And so master the English language. Take every opportunity to practice speaking in front of your classmates or in school. When the teacher calls on you, pop right up. Stand up there and speak clearly and directly, and look them in the eye to show that you can communicate in the English language and you can pass back the knowledge you've received.

You will find that this will put you on a path of success. You will find that if you start with this basic building block of English, all sorts of doors open up to you. And when you master English, then what else can you master? Math. You can read your math book and understand it. You can read social studies. You can read geography books. You can read about history. You can read about anything. You can gather all the world's knowledge that's out there once you master the English language. Don't be afraid of it. Master it.

Remember that there are opportunities available to you that were not available to me when I was a kid like you here in this room today. Because 50 years ago or 55 years ago -- (laughter) -- when I was a kid, a black kid living in a slum area in New York City, they said, "You're black and you're a second class citizen. No, worse than that. You're a tenth class citizen. Because you're black you can't go to that school. Because you're black we're not going to let you go to that restaurant. Because you're black you can't do this, you can't do that."

My parents kept telling me, and the adults in my lives kept telling me, "Don't worry about that. Donít care what people say about you or how they point to you and think you're different. You're not different. You're one of God's creatures." And what you have to do to defeat the people who think that you are second class is to make sure that you are first class in your own mind, that you believe in yourself and you let nothing stand in your way. And believing in yourself isn't enough. Then you've got to get the tools. The tools begin with that quality education that begins with English, and then you can start to expand in so many other different ways.

And when I was your age and coming along, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I wasn't that good in math, but I was pretty good in English. And then I decided that the Army was for me, and so I became an Army officer for 35 years. And for a 35-year period, I kept repeating the progress, the pattern of study, study, study, work, work, work, always doing the mission, doing what I was required to do, never being afraid of obstacles put in my path. And I was able to get to the top of my chosen profession as a solider to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And I was the first black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff because the country had changed so much, and all those barriers that used to be applied to people of color, people who were different in one way or another, most of those barriers were swept away.

And now I am here before you as the first African American Secretary of State. But not too many people say much about that any more because it doesn't make that much difference any more. It isn't that unique to see somebody in a position like mine. That's what make this country so great, that you can see this kind of change. But that change was fought for. We got it because of people like Martin Luther King, whose birthday we recently celebrated, Rosa Parks, and so many other people who struggled to go ahead of you. I struggled to go ahead of you. I watched that change take place, and I struggled to go ahead of you.

And we all did it so that we could create opportunities for you now. Because you're coming along, not being considered second or tenth class citizens, with no door closed to you on the basis of your color or your gender or your skin or your background or anything else. The only door that is closed to you now is your own door in your mind if you don't want to take advantage of the opportunities that were fought for and people died to get for you.

And so we have such faith in you. We believe in you so much. We want you to know that you are carrying our expectations; you are carrying our lives. What difference does it make if I became Secretary of State or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff if I didn't prepare the way for my children? And they're doing well, and my grandchildren are doing well. We're also doing it to prepare the way for you, expecting each and every one of you to make the best use of what you've been given and to take advantage of the opportunities that this great country has provided for you.

Here in this Department we're responsible for foreign policy. You probably heard that in the course of the day. It is our responsibility to show to the rest of the world what American values are all about, to receive visitors from around the world who want to see how this American miracle works, how we can have people come from all over the world, and in just a few weeks to become Americans. They never forget that they're Cuban or Jamaican or from Estonia or from Germany or Japan or somewhere else in the world; they never forget their culture, but they're all Americans, and they all believe in our system. It's a rather unique thing in the world.

And so people look to us to see if that experiment that started over 200 years ago when this nation was founded is still alive and well. And it is alive and well. So one of the principal functions of this Department that you have been at all day -- and you've been sharing our experience -- is to show to the rest of the world that we still are that kind of a nation, a nation that believes in all of its people, a nation that believes in the founding documents that were given to us by our founding fathers, and a nation that will never rest, never be satisfied, until every one of its children, every one of you, looks in a mirror, believes in yourself, believes to the depth of your heart and your soul that you can be anything, anything that you're willing to work for, apply yourself towards. Develop the character you need to reach that goal, and then study, study, study. Educate yourself, get ready for it. If you believe, you will achieve. And maybe you'll be Secretary of State. Maybe you'll be an Ambassador Boucher. Maybe you'll be one of the fine security people we have here. Maybe you'll be one of the various absolutely super administrative persons we have here. Maybe you'll be a television camera person. I don't know. But I do know that it's up to you.

And so I want to thank you for spending the day here at the State Department. I hope you enjoyed it, and I wish you all the very, very best. And remember, if you don't become successes, then I have not been a success, nor have the adults in your lives. So we're counting on you. Don't let us down. Okay? Good. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

We've got a little bit of time if anybody wants to ask a question about anything. Who wants to ask a question? (Laughter.) Come on, somebody. We're not going anywhere till somebody asks a question. (Laughter.)

There you go. Now, I'll show you how we do it when we have a lot of foreign visitors. You have to take this funny little microphone and press a button until something red goes on. There you go.

Q: Okay. Who was the person who influenced you the most while you were growing up?

SECRETARY POWELL: I have to say, and I always do say, my parents: two wonderful people who worked very hard and gave me a model to look after, to follow. They were very, very influential in my life. But lots of other people came along over the years.

And the question usually comes to me, "Who was your role model?" And what I answer is there was no one single role model, except perhaps my parents, that everybody else who ever came into my life, whether it was an important person or a not-so-important person, touched my life in one way or another.

And what I tried to do is learn from my interaction with everybody who came into my life. Some people were very, very important. Some people did things to me that were painful, but I learned from that painful experience and I always tried to grow from every human interaction.

And I think you'll all find that you're going to be a product of your experience as people touch your life, for good or for bad. And just take it all in, learn from the good and build on the good.

When something bad happens, when something breaks your heart, when something causes you to cry, when you've flunked an exam, when you think something should have come your way but it didn't come your way, learn from it. Donít get mad. Don't get mad. Don't get even. Just say, What did I do wrong? What could I have done differently? What could I do better next time?

And then think about it for a while, fix yourself, roll it up in a ball, throw it over your shoulder, and never look back at a failure. You can't change it. You don't get any reruns in life. There is no serials. You can't hit the button to do it differently. So just learn from the good and the bad, the good people in your life, the bad people in your life, and never forget that you are good and keep right on going. And you will find that body of experience will build your character and build a reputation in your own heart for yourself and for the other people in your life.

Anyone else? Yes, dear.

Q: Given the opportunity to join the military again, with all that you know, which branch would you have chosen, if another branch? (Laughter.)

SECRETARY POWELL: I would of course have chosen the Army. (Laughter.) And I of course would have become an infantry officer again. I love the Army. There was nothing else I ever wanted to do, and I always wanted to be an infantry officer, and so that's what I did. And in my 35 years, the first 20 was almost entirely infantry, and then my career started to take a different path and they started to send me to strange assignments in the Pentagon and at the White House, and so my career started to take a different path, and I had a hard time getting back to the infantry.

And so you just take life as it comes at you. And the beautiful part about the Army is that they were always giving me something that was beyond me. They were always testing me and they were always causing me to stretch -- an assignment that shouldn't have come at that time. They were always pushing me. And by being pushed, I grew fast.

And they also kept me scared most of the time because they were always giving me things that I really wasn't ready for, and they wanted to see whether I would be afraid and not do well, or whether I would buckle down and learn what had to be done and then do well.

And so I never wanted to be anything but a soldier. And the day I retired, when I was talking about it I said, you know, if I could start all over and I was 21 years old again, I would do the same thing, with all the good days and with all the bad days, because you've got to have the good with the bad, and the bad with the good.

MODERATOR: The Secretary can take one more question, and I would like to suggest an elementary school student.

SECRETARY POWELL: Oh, yes, by all means.

Q: What schools did you attend, and how were your grades? (Laughter.)

SECRETARY POWELL: I'll tell you what school I attended. (Laughter.)

I went to two elementary schools in the South Bronx section of New York City, P.S. 20 in a very, very bad section of town called Fort Apache, and then P.S. 39, and I went through the sixth grade. And then I went to a junior high school about two blocks away from that called P.S. 52, and then I went to Morris High School, also in the Bronx. Morris High School was a great school, but we didn't know it at the time. It was the school you went to when you couldn't get into one of the good schools; you went to Morris. And I couldn't get into one of the smart schools because I had bad grades, terrible. Really, I'm not kidding. Bad grades all the way.

And then I got into Morris and I continued to get bad grades. And then I graduated from Morris, went into the City College of New York -- they let me in with my bad grades -- and I stayed there for four and a half years -- it was a four-year course -- with bad grades. And then finally I graduated and they kicked me out of -- they sort of kicked me, said go to the Army, please just go. (Laughter.)

And so I left City College in New York with a straight C average in my grades, but an A average in my ROTC, my military training. So they said just go, please go away. And I went into the Army with not a great academic background.

I then went to graduate school at George Washington University, which is just a block from here, and I got straight A's when I went to George Washington because I was a lot older; I wasn't fooling around any more. And so I ended up being a pretty good student.

And then 30-odd years, 35 years later, City College of New York discovered that I had become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- (laughter) -- and now I'm the favorite son, the most famous person who ever graduated from CCNY, and they give me all kinds of honors. And I smile because they were sure anxious to see me go 35 years ago. (Laughter.)

Let me take one more.

Q: Yes. I would like to know what inspired you on writing your autobiography, "My American Journey."

SECRETARY POWELL: Writing my autobiography, My American Journey, was very, very hard work. A number of people in this room helped me with it -- Bill Smullen and Peggy Cifrino and others. And I had a wonderful collaborator who worked with me, a man by the name of Joe Persiko. And he was a professional writer, and he was able to take my oral history -- essentially, we talked for close to -- I guess we talked for almost six months every day for about six to seven hours a day -- and we recorded it all.

And when all of that got typed up it was, oh, about this much paper in transcripts. And then Mr. Persiko and I went through it a chapter at a time. He would make one version, I would fix it, he would fix it, I would fix it, and after about a year and a half we had gone through all of that and we tried to write a book that was entertaining, readable, also history but also fun, with lots of stories and anecdotes in it.

We were supposed to write a book of 500 pages, and when we turned the book in finally, we discovered when they put it in the computer that it was 620 pages. And my publisher called and said, "620 pages? You were supposed to do 500." I said, "Well, do you want me to cut it 120 pages?" He said, "No, we like it." And so they published it. So it's a very thick book that scares a lot of people.

But if you want to read it, you really ought to get it. It's not too expensive. (Laughter.) And you really ought to get it and just read the first 200 pages, because that's really the real story of my life. The rest of it is, you know, it's okay. But if I had known how good the first 200 was -- were, I wouldn't have done the rest of it. I mean, it's really good the first couple of hundred pages.

But it was hard work and I used all the talents that I had accumulated over the years of reading something and understanding it and know what works, and speaking in a way that captures the essence of a story. And I'm very, very proud of the book. It's been published in many languages, and I just got a letter yesterday that it's now going to be published in the Danish language as well. So it's done very well. Almost 2 million copies were sold.

Thank you all very, very much, and enjoy the rest of your visit at your Department of State. Thank you.  (Applause.)

[Released by the Office of the Spokesman February 2, 2001]



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