President John F. Kennedy has now been dead longer than he was alive. Yet, his election and subsequent assassination are already a familiar saga, even to those just about to learn his story.
Kennedy holds a prominent place in U.S. history books and students start to learn a more detailed picture of his legacy in high school — usually first in U.S. history junior year and also in government senior year.
In Bismarck, teachers said they usually spend a couple weeks, all told, on Kennedy, his presidency and assassination.
As a key figure in a number of major historical events — the Bay of Pigs, civil rights movement, Cuban Missile Crisis and his own assassination — more time is spent on Kennedy, and events surrounding his presidency, than many other figures.
Most students come in with at least some basic knowledge of Kennedy, said Century High School history teacher Ryan Kaufman.
“They all seem to come in with the belief that he was a great persident without really even knowing why,” said Perry Lee, a Century teacher who teaches history, government and American Pageant, a combination history and English class.
What students seem to know — before going over it in class — is the drama of Kennedy.
One of the first things mentioned about Kennedy, by junior Joel Crane in one of Kaufman’s U.S. histoy classes, was his reported affair with Marilyn Monroe.
Fellow junior Sheldon Senger mentioned his association with the civil rights movement. Abby Muggerud, also a junior, pointed out that the Kennedys were celebrities and Jackie, Kennedy’s wife and beloved first lady, became an icon.
It’s a time in history Kaufman said he enjoys teaching.
“I’m kind of a Kennedy buff and so I probably do more with it than other teachers,” he said.
With Kennedy, teachers look at his presidency highlights and mistakes, as well as the impact of his death on the country.
He was a young, charismatic president, and a collection of firsts — first Catholic president, first president born in the 20th century and the youngest ever elected at age 43.
This is part of the reason his death struck such a chord with the American people. He is considered one of the greatest presidents largely because of his untapped potential to do great things, said Lee.
Bismarck High School psychology and American Pageant teacher Robin Nein said it is interesting for students to wonder, “what if?” with Kennedy’s presidency, particularly with something like the Vietnam War, where Kennedy was involved in the early stages.
The conspiracy theories surrounding Kennedy’s death also play a major role, partly because students find them interesting and partly because teachers sometimes have to separate fact from fiction.
“It’s more or less trying to debunk the myth,” Nein said.
However, because the different theories fascinate the students, Kaufman said he has them do research and write a paper, defending the theory they chose.
In senior year government, Lee said he teaches more about Kennedy’s leadership style, the effect his campaign had on future campaigns and the toll his death took on the country.
The key to teaching history, Nein said, is to make it relevant and make connections.
“They don’t care about the government or political aspect unless you can make it relevant,” Nein said. “ ‘... How is it relevant to me?’ That’s the biggest strength for history teachers.”
Teaching JFK often involves separating the man from the legend — providing the facts without exaggerating the drama, though the story of JFK certainly does not lack in that regard.