For high-school kids, even students at John F. Kennedy Catholic High School in Burien, JFK has mostly become a chapter in their history book.
For many, even their parents were born after President Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963.
Those in their late 50s and older can still get misty-eyed at the photos of the widow, Jackie Kennedy, at the funeral procession, 3-year-old John Jr. saluting the casket of his father.
Then there are today’s teens, such as Hannah Baillie, 17, one of the students in Angela Hunter’s class of Advanced Placement U.S. History.
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“I don’t feel the emotional connection, not really,” Hannah says. “Fifty years is a long time.”
In the school library, the staff is making extra effort to teach students about Kennedy. They’re setting up tables to display old magazines, newspaper front pages and other items from the school’s 1,000-item collection about its namesake. In various classes, JFK will be incorporated in the studies.
On Friday there will be an assembly with a video that includes parts from Kennedy’s speeches.
In most schools, it is not a day commemorated with a special assembly.
“I haven’t heard of anything,” says Leslie Rogers, chief communications officer for Seattle Public Schools. “For many teachers, it’s before their time, too.”
The Burien school opened in 1967, and even its sports teams, the Kennedy Catholic Lancers, have a JFK connection. “Lancer” was the president’s Secret Service code name.
Principal Michael Prato says the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination brings the school “in touch with our roots.”
Anna Tegelberg, 16, says she associates with the president “the Peace Corps and civil rights, because we talked about them in class. Those are the only two things.”
She says she understands why those over 50 might hope a 16-year-old would know more about Kennedy.
“I wonder how I would feel when I’m their age, and teenagers didn’t know much about [President] Obama,” she says. “I’m sorry, I don’t know how to answer that question.”
In the front of the classroom, Hunter has placed a life-size cardboard cutout of JFK that you can order online for less than $30. It shows him in a brown suit, right hand in his coat pocket as he was wont to do. She has stuck a U.S. flag in his left hand.
The 16 students in class are mostly 11th-graders. They can list the basics: first Catholic president, the Peace Corps, the Cuban Missile Crisis, civil rights, his youth.
For some, the tie to JFK comes from watching a YouTube video or documentary.
“In eighth grade we watched this debate he had with Richard Nixon. That was really interesting. He appears real confident during interviews, and answered without having a doubt,” says Cullen Bryant, 16.
Conor Brogan, 18, tells of watching “Kennedys’ Home Movies” on Netflix.
“That was pretty moving, seeing his family. They were like a model American family,” he says. “I can actually see him with his kids. I mean, it’s distant, but it makes it more personal.”
Sometimes the kids learn about the emotional impact of JFK’s assassination from a grandparent.
Says Alex MacKenzie, 16, about that Nov. 22, “This past weekend I was visiting a friend, and we were with his grandparents. The grandma was telling that she happened to be in Ghirardelli Square (in San Francisco) on her husband’s birthday. Everybody was so sad. They went to a restaurant and nobody was around.”
It might not be the most compelling memory, but it personalizes it for Alex.
The kids study from a well-received textbook called “The American Pageant: A History of the Republic.”
It offers this sober assessment of JFK:
“Chopped down in his prime after only slightly more than 1,000 days in the White House, Kennedy was acclaimed more for the ideals he had enunciated and the spirit he had kindled than for the concrete goals he had achieved.”
One of the authors of the textbook is David M. Kennedy, the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History, Emeritus, at Stanford University.
He says of JFK, “He was a creature of and actively promoted his presidency in the celebrity culture.”
That was easier to do back then, he says. National TV came through only three networks.
But these days, David Kennedy says: “Younger generations are a little bit jaded. They have all kinds of celebrities to which they can attach their attention. He’s just another fine-looking young man cut down in the prime of his life.”
There is something else that comes up in talking about JFK: Some of the students are tuning out politics.
Says Hannah Baillie: “I don’t have an emotional connection with politics. I don’t like politicians. I guess they’re all kind of liars.”
They’re also well-aware that the JFK legacy now includes stories about various affairs, including with Marilyn Monroe, and, coming to light more recently, with an intern.
Hunter is not shy about expressing her opinions to the class about JFK’s affairs.
In June, the class will take an eight-day trip to the East Coast, visiting various historical sites, including Arlington National Cemetery.
Hunter says her first stop at the cemetery will be the grave of his brother, Sen. Robert Kennedy.
“I’m very biased. I think of the dream of what could have been. He had everything to offer this country,” she says about Robert Kennedy. “We’re in a Catholic school and we’re teaching you values.”
She says she can’t just forget about JFK’s reputation as a womanizer.
“Oh, but his speeches were absolutely awesome,” Hunter says.
The kids take that all in, and some are more forgiving.
Says Alex MacKenzie, “People underestimate the stress of being a president, having to please millions of people. They make mistakes with their decisions.”
A 50th anniversary of a historical event always means plenty of coverage.
But to a high-school kid, what is that Camelot reference in the stories about the young president and his family, anyway?
Olivia Sands, 16, simply concludes, “I looked at those funeral pictures and I see his wife and kids, and how people were sad.”
That’s about it.
Times researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter @ErikLacitis