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Hail To The Chief ... Or Don’t

This article is more than 5 years old.

As the mother of a president, I can tell you this: it sure is a learning experience.

My son was Thomas Jefferson.

For Halloween.

When he was 6.

Let me back up.

Children are curiosity machines and left to their own devices, they will follow eccentric routes. My 5-year-old became a self-taught presidential scholar.

Kids are funny creatures. Everything is new to them and you never know which random mote of dust will grab their attention, captivate them, inspire them, hijack their brains and make them speak of nothing else for all their born days.

The year he was in kindergarten, I gave my son, as a gift, some educational placemats.

(Not for nothing am I known as the reigning queen of stupefying lackluster benevolence.)

One happened to feature the presidents of the United States.

The rest, you could say, was history. This placemat spoke to my child in a language only he could hear. You can't predict or control the quirks and passions of kids and it makes no sense to try. Parents get very familiar with the siren song of the unexpected.

For some kids it’s dinosaurs, for some it’s vintage cars; my preschool nephew was smitten with the Periodic Table. Children are curiosity machines and left to their own devices, they will follow eccentric routes.

The author's son as President Thomas Jefferson, Halloween 1997. (Courtesy)
The author's son as President Thomas Jefferson, Halloween 1997. (Courtesy)

My 5-year-old became a self-taught presidential scholar.

With every smear of peanut butter that landed on the laminated leaders of the free world, the little guy became an info-seeking missile. He found every book about presidents ever written, and inhaled them. Picture books, chapter books, fiction, non-fiction, sticker books, joke books, encyclopedias, Mad Libs.

As kids on a mission are wont to do, he memorized minutiae and became a connoisseur of particulars: Did you know William Howard Taft got stuck in the White House bathtub? James A. Garfield was ambidextrous and wrote in Latin and Greek at the same time with different hands? Benjamin Harrison was afraid of electricity and wouldn’t touch the light switch?

And so on. My son loved the idea of presidents, he savored the stories of presidents, and the grand plan naturally included his own election as president.

Meanwhile, until his eventual inauguration, he would need to pick a favorite. After an initial flirtation with Ulysses S. Grant (and you have not seen indignant until you've seen a rising first-grader stumble across a newspaper article reporting that historians have ranked his chosen president "possibly the worst ever") he settled on a founding father. My son's new and enduring #1: Thomas Jefferson. Author of the Declaration of Independence, and inventor of the swivel chair.

And, well, you know how kids are. Obsession leads to imitation leads to a hunt for a Halloween costume.

You never saw such a cute polyester-pantalooned Monticellist.

How did he not glom on to John F. Kennedy? The commander in chief who put our burg on the map?

Oh, and when in the course of human events it becomes necessary to go trick-or-treating as the third president of the United States and you're carrying a parchment Declaration to unfurl every so often for effect? You might want to delegate the lugging of the candy bag to the mom, if she can be trusted with the 3 Musketeers.

Point being (for those who find it helpful to be reminded of a point lurking just when all hope was lost): my son did love and emulate this one president above all, but he also revered the entire presidential cast of characters, give or take a few bad eggs.

So it surprised me that he could be so nonchalant about our local hero.

The kid had lived his entire life in Brookline. He was ferociously proud of and devoted to the town. But he didn't go nuts for the one president, the icon so much larger than life, who was born and raised up the road.

How did he not glom on to John F. Kennedy? The commander in chief who put our burg on the map? The young charming superstar, the ace of the staff, the man on the placemat you’d think might emerge as the role model for any mini-Brookliner making tracks for the Oval Office? #35 is hard to ignore — every trip to the bagel shop involves a swing through JFK Crossing.

Exercising my patented maternal know-it-all-itude, I figured it out.  The assassination must have ruined the bond. Why get invested, when it all ends in tears? Why admire and impersonate a president cut down in his prime? What sensitive child would bring that on himself?

But since I knew, I never asked. Until now.

My son is a newly minted college graduate, with a degree in... wait for it... government and politics. If ever the time was ripe for a chat, this was it, amidst the surge of anniversary tales of the president born on Beals Street.

John F. Kennedy’s birthplace, a National Historic Site at 83 Beals St. in Brookline. (dbking/Flickr)
John F. Kennedy’s birthplace, a National Historic Site at 83 Beals St. in Brookline. (dbking/Flickr)

“Why,” I asked him the other day, “did you stay so mellow about the president from your actual hometown?”

He shrugged.

“It just was not,” he said, “that big a deal. Because, I mean, of course he’d lived in Brookline. That's how kids think.”

Wait. What? If there’s an expert here in how kids think, isn’t that me? Being, you know, momniscient? Just who are you to claim you… oh. Yes. The thinking kid in question.

“Brookline was the center of my universe. And the presidents were the center of my universe. And I was gonna be president. So, duh.”

Duh, he said. Not the drama, not the tragedy. Just, duh.

“Right? It all fit, the way things do when you’re really little and the world is really big. Obviously, JFK was my neighbor. Like, that’s cool, but... don’t force it.”

As I mentioned, it’s a learning experience. For me, but also for my son.  It's been weeks now since Halloween and the future president still can't believe I swiped all the leftover 3 Musketeers.


This program aired on November 19, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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