The Magazine

The Student Princes

A child is the father to the president here.

Aug 13, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 45 • By KATHERINE EASTLAND
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School House to White House: The Education of the Presidents

The National Archives

Through January 1, 2008

This fun, interactive exhibit about the education of 20th-century presidents presents more than 150 artifacts from the presidential libraries, most of which will go on tour after the show's debut in Washington.

The artifacts paint quirky, humble portraits of men when they were boys in love with summertime and beribboned young ladies. Visitors will learn tidbits hard to find elsewhere, such as what 16-year-old Barbara wrote (in a jumbled, curvy hand) to George H.W. Bush after he invited her to a Christmas promenade. Or what grades the boys made in classes such as "deportment" and "hygiene." Or how gracefully Gerald Ford punted footballs.

These and other specimens adorn six spaces, each highlighting an aspect of education, whether formal--as in the first three, which track grade school, high school, and college--or nonacademic, as in the last three, which track extracurricular activities, sports, and the presidents' personal reflections on their schooldays. The dominant colors are, fittingly, primaries: ruler yellow, brick red, sports-locker blue. Yes, there are lockers in the sports section. And yes, every passing child opens and closes all nine to see pictures of the presidents with their sports teams.

While I was admiring (and, I admit, delighting in) the hats in Franklin Roosevelt's class photo, a businessman type nudged me: "Was this the guy who dropped the nukes?" Well, the old maxim applies: There are no stupid questions. Despite its hazy history, his inquiry touched on what the show omits: what the boys became, the stuff that transcends ordinariness.

Exhibit coordinator Jennifer Nichols explains that "[the presidents] are uncommon men, but we all share common experiences."

Of course. But here we find the common divorced from the uncommon. Consider the first scene of the exhibit, copied right out of Norman Rockwell: Two windows trimmed in moth-munched lace, and set in a wallpapered wall. Resting on one windowsill, a 14-inch television runs a silent film called Future Presidents at Play. At one moment, we see Ronald Reagan gracefully diving from a pier; in the next, there's John F. Kennedy bumping elbows with friends. In the other window are black-and-white snapshots, including one of five-year-old Jimmy Carter feeding his pony, Lady Lee.

It's easy to feel at home here: Like Jimmy Carter, we all possess cute, sometimes embarrassing, family photos. (And if our parents were tech-savvy, and affluent, we have some home movies, too.) The ordinary abounds. In the adjacent room, painted Ticonderoga yellow and lined with old-fashioned desks, there are scores of report cards. One girl in red glasses showed her mom an especially abysmal grade (55) JFK made on a Latin test at age 13. The lesson: Kids can make a few substellar grades and still grow up just fine, perhaps even sit in the Oval Office one day. (Not necessarily a bad message for a grade-obsessed culture.)

All these documents are common, playing a part in the fabric of everyday kid life. So when children find something familiar in a museum, they gravitate towards it to see how they measure up. And when they take note, like the girl in red glasses, that the leaders of their country were imperfect like them, the knowledge comes as a relief.

There are a few moments when kids can see inklings of nobility. One comes from the pencil of an eighth-grader who, years later, would be faced with the decision to "drop the nukes." Harry Truman, not yet a master of punctuation, wrote that "a true heart and a strong mind and a great deal of courage and I think a man will get through the world."

Yet instead of filling its space with more documents like this, the exhibit keeps on showing things like Bill Clinton's "Stardusters" music stand, Gerald Ford's letter sweater, a photo of the Bushes, 41 and 43, in matching outfits, and lots of diplomas. All of which are nice, and can ground the presidents as real people in children's imaginations; but, when not complemented with enough "uncommon" artifacts, they present incomplete (if entertaining) portraits. The ordinary and the extraordinary require each to enrich the other.

At the end of "School Houses" some effort is made to connect the boys with the men they became. In this section, called "Memories," there are a few scrapbooks with photographs, and there's a television playing a video of the presidents all grown up and talking--with a kind of wistful, grandfatherly charm--about their schooldays. Richard Nixon talks about how he wished a grade-school teacher could have worked with him in the White House: She always doled out the best advice! And then everyone lets out a quiet laugh and leaves.