Remarks by President Biden at the 2021 State and National Teachers of the Year Event
3:26 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: My name is Joe Biden, and I’m Jill’s husband. (Laughter and applause.) Please. Please, sit down. Please. Please, please, please.
Well, Mr. Secretary, as they say in parts of Claymont — I am from — you’ve done good, fella. (Laughter.) As you can see, I didn’t get my English lessons from Jill. (Laughter.)
Also here is a good friend of mine: Chairman and the Congressman, Bobby Scott. Bobby, stand up. (Applause.)
And, Randi, thank you, thank you, thank you. We kept our commitment, didn’t we?
MS. WEINGARTEN: Yep. That’s what I said. (Laughs.)
THE PRESIDENT: All right. And I just want you to know, Becky, you know, Jill is a member of the union. I hope her dues are paid up. (Laughter and applause).
MS. PRINGLE: They are.
THE PRESIDENT: They are? Okay. I just want to check. I just want to check.
There’s nowhere I would rather be than with educators. You know, when we decided to run and we got elected — Jill elected me — (laughter) — you all think I’m kidding, huh? (Laughter.) Well, what happened was that we started thinking about it, and I knew immediately. Jill said, “By the way…” And I said, “It’s okay with me. Teach full-time.” (Applause.) She’s the only — she’s the only First Lady who’s ever had a full-time job.
Now, the fact that I don’t ever get to see her, the fact that she is either traveling on behalf of the people of this country or going to her classroom teaching 15 credits at the community college is a different story. But it is who she is. Like I heard her say — she probably said; I heard her say many times: Teaching is not what you all do, it’s who you are. It’s what you’re made of.
And, you know, one of the things that I — I used the line years ago — that I still think is relevant in a slightly different context: You know, when you think about it, the single-most consequential people in the world, beyond our parents — God willing, if we have them — is our teachers. You are — you are the ones who — you’re the kite strings that lift our national ambitions aloft. I mean it. Not a joke. It’s a reality. It’s a reality.
One of the reasons why we’re working so hard and the Secretary is helping so much in the Build Back Better plan is that — the rest of the world is starting to figure this out — the rest of the world is starting to out-educate us. Early education is earlier and more prevalent in European countries. A significant number — we rank number 34 out of 37 industrial nations in the world in the number of where we rank in terms of people getting a degree beyond high school.
And so, we have to get back in step. And you’re all the reasons. You’re the best of the best. You know, for all of it — you know, by the way, where are my two Delaware teachers?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Here!
(Laughter and applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Who’s Newcastle? (Applause.) Newcastle! All right. (Laughter.)
You can see we’re not at all proud of Delaware. (Laughter.) My dad used to always say: Never forget where you came from. As they say, them — the one that brung me to the dance. You know?
But I want to thank Rebecca, and I thank — of the Colonial Education Program in Newcastle. And — (applause) — and Kimberly of McKeon High School in Wilmington.
MS. STOCK: That’s me!
THE PRESIDENT: That’s you. Okay! All right. (Laughter and applause.)
And now the two National Teachers of the Year. It’s a pretty big deal. I listened to both of your speeches, and they’re very impressive. And I mean it sincerely: What you do really matters. What you do really matters. And it matters in a way that I think you all don’t fully realize. I don’t think about — I’ll bet — you know, I look at every important decision I made in my life. I ask myself three things — not a joke: what my dad and mom would think I should do.
But when we decided to — I’m just going to tell you a quick story. When I decided to help pick someone who was going to be the nominee for the Democratic Party — I was asked in Delaware to go out and try to find a candidate for the United States Senate — I was 28 years old, as part of this group of people. And I kept trying to get people to — who were consequential — to get involved, and they didn’t want to do it. And Nixon was running that year. It was going to be a lead- pipe cinch; Republicans are going to win. And I was a Democrat.
And so, I showed up at a Democratic convention — an off-year convention — and I went to make sure that everything was going to be okay. And I would report to — I was the kid at the convention. And it was in Dover, Delaware.
And after the afternoon session, I went back to the hotel — a typical hotel — a motel where you drive up, you get out the car, and you walk in the door. And I was in there and I was shaving, and I had a towel around me, and I was in the bathroom — which is, like, 8 by 10 — and two beds where the headboard is nailed to the wall — (laughter) — and a desk nailed to the wall.
And all of a sudden, I hear, “Bam! Bam! Bam!” There’s banging on my door. And I thought it was a guy — a great friend named by Bob Cunningham and a guy named Dennis. I thought they were coming to pick me up, and I thought I was late.
So, I went to the door with shaving cream and razor in my hand, towel on. I opened the door, and who’s standing there but the former Governor of the State of Delaware. (Laughter.) Swear to God. A former Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court. A Rhodes Scholar. And more members of his family were United States senators than any family in American history.
Thirdly, a congressman who had been defeated earlier — a great guy, a five-term congressman — and a guy named Henry Topel, who was the state chairman.
And they said, “We’re coming in.” I said — (laughter) — and I had not met two of them personally. Two I hadn’t met. And I’m in my towel. (Laughter.) I mean, I’m in a towel with shaving cream on my face.
And so, I stepped back. I said, “Oh, gentlemen. Okay. Please come in.” And I went into the bathroom thinking I’m going to get — put something on. I get in, and I realized there’s nothing to put on. (Laughter.)
So, I wiped the shaving cream off my face, and I walk out, and I was mortified. And I said, “I’m sorry, gentlemen.” They said, “It’s okay.” And there were two of them — each on the end of each of the two beds that were facing me. And I’m — I’m against the desk like this.
And this guy, Henry Topel, said that — he was from New York. He said, “Joe, we just had dinner. We were thinking and — you should run for the United States Senate.” And I said, “Oh, geez.” I said, “Mr. Chairman…” I said, “I’m not old enough.” And the then-Chief Justice — retired Chief Justice — of course, said, “Joe, obviously you didn’t do very well in law school.” (Laughter.)
I looked at him. He said, “It says you have to be 30 years old to be sworn in, not to be elected. You can be — and you’ll turn 30 by the time it’s time to be sworn in.”
And, anyway, that was my exposure — no pun intended — (laughter).
And so, I go to the event, and I’m riding home with this guy, Bob Cunningham, who was a really bright guy, and I said, “Bob, I don’t know what in God’s name I’m going to do. This is crazy.” And so, I’m thinking, “Who am I going to talk to?” True story.
And the next morning, I get up and I called my professor at the University of Delaware — a guy named Dr. Ingersoll. And I said, “Doctor, can I come down and see you?” And he said, “Of course.”
I went down and sat with him for a half an hour. I told him what was happening. He just looked at me and said, “Joe, remember what Plato said…” And I’m thinking, “What the hell did Plato say?” (Laughter.)
But he said, “To paraphrase Plato, he said the penalty good people pay for not being involved in politics is being governed by people worse than themselves.”
And he looked at me, and he said, “Joe, you should run.” I said, “But I — I feel strongly about all of these issues, but I…” I had gotten involved in the Civil Rights Movement and the wa- — but I —
He said, “Joe, you should do it.” He had enough confidence in me that he gave me confidence in myself. With a kid with no money, coming from a middle-class family, who grew up in grade school stuttering, literally — for me, I’m confident I would have never done it were it not for Dr. Ingersoll.
I’m sure there are people — each of you — you can look back at and they’ve changed your life. But most of all, what you do is you give us confidence. You instill confidence.
Just like when I was a kid when I used to stutter badly, the nuns would sit me down and they’d say, “Joey, you can do this,” and practiced with me. They gave me confidence.
And so, folks, you know, as Jill always says, “Teaching is not who you — what you do, it’s who you are.”
And it also is — I — let me conclude by saying this about something that — as a strong proponent of education, I became friends — and Jill as well — but I became friends with Colin Powell, who we just lost.
Think of where Colin Powell — he’s not only a dear friend and a patriot, one of our great military leaders, and a man of overwhelming decency, but this is the guy born the son of immigrants in New York City, raised in Harlem, in the South Bronx. Graduated from City College of New York. And he rose to the highest ranks not only in the military but also in — in areas of foreign policy and statecraft.
This is a guy — and we talk about it — who had teachers who looked at this African American kid and said, “You can do anything.”
So, all I want to say to you, really, is: Don’t underestimate. Don’t underestimate what you do. The good news about you all is you underestimate it so you come off in a way that you don’t feel self-important. But you’re gigantic. You make a gigantic difference.
And I learned that when Jill and I would walk through the malls on Christmas time when I was a senator and kids would go, “Hey, hey, hey!” And I’d wave. (Laughter.) And they’d say, “No, no, no, no. Dr. Biden! Dr. — ” (Laughter.) Swear to God. (Applause.)
So, folks, thank you for what you do. I really mean it. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
And now I’ve got a few little gifts to give here.
THE FIRST LADY: This is for Tabitha.
THE PRESIDENT: Tabitha, can you come up here? I don’t want to drop this. Do you want to hand it to her?
THE FIRST LADY: No, you hand it to her.
MS. ROSPROY: Me neither. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: Tabitha, this is —
THE FIRST LADY: For 2020.
THE PRESIDENT: 2020 — I know, but this is — this apple is worth $280,000. (Laughter.)
MS. ROSPROY: I can retire.
THE PRESIDENT: No, I’m — I’m joking. But I want you to have this and to tell you — let you know how much we appreciate you and all you do.
MS. ROSPROY: Thank you.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you.
MS. ROSPROY: Thank you so much.
THE PRESIDENT: I’m not sure if (inaudible) —
MS. ROSPROY: (Laughs.) I’ll be really careful.
THE PRESIDENT: Okay, good. All right.
THE FIRST LADY: And this is Juliana’s.
THE PRESIDENT: Juliana, come on up here. Juliana, I had a great friend who was a former senator from Texas who looked at me one day — he’s passed away now — and he said, “Joe, you’ll never get elected President unless you can learn to speak Spanish.”
MS. URTUBEY: Smart man.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, guess what? I decided to hire everybody who spoke Spanish. (Laughter.) But congratulations. It’s a great honor, and I’m delighted to have an opportunity to meet you.
MS. URTUBEY: Thank you, Mr. President.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much.
(The President turns to the press.)
Q Mr. President, can you say a few more words about Colin Powell and his — the fact that he got COVID despite being vaccinated?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, by the way, he had serious underlying conditions, as you know. That — that’s the problem. It wasn’t that he got — the vaccinations are good, but he had two very serious underlying conditions. And, unfortunately, it didn’t work. God love him.
Q So what’s your message to Americans? Should they still get vaccinated?
THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely. No (inaudible) — I know you — I know you don’t believe that. Ask questions that you really, really want an answer to. Okay?
Q Okay. How are you going to get Joe Manchin to agree? That’s what we want to know.
THE PRESIDENT: I’m going to go do that right now. That’s where I’m going.
3:41 P.M. EDT