Saturday, August 29, 2009

Where Were You When You Learned Ted Kennedy Existed?

When I was a kid, John F. Kennedy might as well have been Abraham Lincoln. To me, they were both towering and tragic historical figures, but long dead, and belonging to an era that passed before my birth. I have clear recollections of the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Kennedy's death; I remember watching televison specials about his presidency and his assassination, both at home and in the classroom. My (fifth-grade) teacher that year had a great interest in American presidents, so I became well-versed in the JFK saga (I also remember reading about twenty pages of a Jackie Kennedy biography before finally succumbing to boredom). And the degree of mythologizing I was exposed to served to cement my perception that JFK's Camelot was just as distant from my world as the fictional Camelot was.

Of course though, time is relative, and I've come to realize that back when I was first becoming congnizant of the cultural impact of JFK, he really hadn't been gone all that long. Twenty-five years is more than two lifetimes for a 5th grader, but now that the then-recent Challenger explosion is almost 25 years in the past, I have an appreciation for Faulkner's famous line: "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past."

But actually, my realization that JFK isn't in a sense dead or of the past came about only a few years after that 25th anniversary. I don't think I can accurately convey in words the mixture of surprise and dumbfoundedness I experienced upon learning that JFK had a younger brother who, in the modern world of color TVs and CDs, still served in the U.S. Senate. All the while I had been learning about our 35th president and the prestiguous family that he came from, nobody had seen fit to inform me that a guy who used to sit at the dinner table with this mythic, legendary, larger-than-life figure was now regularly toiling away on legislative initiatives. (Interestingly, nobody told me about Bobby Kennedy, either, which would have gone a long way to clearing up the befuddlement I felt whenever NFL announcers would say they were broadcasting from RFK Stadium in Washington. "Shouldn't that be JFK Stadium?" I would wonder). I wouldn't have been less shocked to suddenly learn that Elvis Presley had a little brother named Calvin who still recorded songs that would occasionaly show up on the adult contemporary charts and who would often tour the country as an opening act for Neil Diamond.

But again, the perspective of time has enabled me to see why Teddy Kennedy's long legislative career was not a point of greater emphasis to schoolchildren. Whatever the scope of his accomplishments as a lawmaker, they fell short of curricular inclusion--which is no great shame, as few senators are thought worthy enough by textbook editors to get their names in bold print (and fewer still for good reasons). But it was precisely because of those accomplishements that Ted Kennedy was able to carve out an identity that to some degree separated him from the mythology and the legacy of his brother.

Yet what ultimately interests me, as I reflect on the Senator's own legacy, is not how history will remember him, but on how we remember history. (And my apologies to the entire Kennedy clan for my brutal attempt at chiasmus). Every year about this time, much is made about the Beloit College Mindset List. We are reminded the cultural references fade over time, that the next generation lacks the same cultural touchstones, and that in short, the old gives way to the new. But given the uncompromising assumptions that are often made about what younger generations should know (such as, in my case, the unspoken existence of a surviving Kennedy), and the subtle way in which the young are subjected to inculcation of nostalgia, I wonder if there are some people who were, like me, at one time shocked to learn of the existence of Teddy Kennedy, but who watched his funeral coverage this week always knowing that he was an accomplished senator from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.


Blogger GINA said...

i learned about ted kennedy when my 10th grade english teacher required a research paper on chappaquiddick. she required this essay for all of her sophomores, every year. she must have really hated ted kennedy to have wanted to read all of those papers on chappaquiddick year after year.

3:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The fact that no one included this brother in historical discussions was a direct result of Chappaquiddick.

8:40 PM  
Blogger Azor said...

For the record, these two comments prove that it is not too difficult to type out "Chappaquiddick."

12:37 AM  

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