George Santayana (1863-1952) told the world that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” A bit of research indicates this quote is often taken out of context; many people figure it to mean that we’re doomed to repeat history if we don’t learn from it.
But let’s roll with that misinterpretation for a minute. More than once, I’ve wondered how long the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor will be remembered once the last World War II veteran dies. In high school, a girlfriend of mine thought Pearl Harbor was in California. The relationship didn’t continue long after that comment.
Putting relationships to the test, I phoned my children Tuesday night — they remain in western Maryland with their mother right now — and asked them, with more than a little caution and an occasional wince, a series of questions about President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and what happened on Nov. 22, 1963.
First up was MacKenzie, an 11-year-old sixth-grader and a straight A student who’s very proud of her academic record over the past two years in particular.
Dad: Who is JFK?
Kenzie: John F. Kennedy
Who is he?
He was one of our presidents. He was assassinated.
Do you know when?
I do not. But you know, I know more than that. Kennedy Robinette (a friend), she has the exact same birthday as John F. Kennedy and her name is Kennedy. May 12 (later corrected to May 29).
I know that he was murdered for political reasons … it was during … I forget what it’s called.
What year was he killed?
Before I was born.
Have you talked about him in class this year?
No. I actually think (that) we’re not going over presidents at all. That’s probably just elementary (school).
Who killed JFK?
I don’t know.
What was his wife’s name?
Something something Kennedy.
Moving on, I decided to ask her about another, but more recent, historical event. My next question asked her about what came to her mind if I said the date Sept. 11, 2001. Mind you, she wasn’t born until March of 2002. Still, her own father and plenty of her friends’ mothers and fathers have served in the military since then.
So, what comes to mind?
9/11. That was when some terrorists tried to bomb us, or bombed us. And a plane crashed into a building.
What building? Where?
I think it’s in that movie …
It was Noah’s turn. Noah’s my Plan A for retirement. Age 14, a high school freshman and an honors student. Earlier this school year, I had proofed a paper he had completed on some of the impacts of 9/11. So I was more hopeful.
That feeling didn’t last long. We started at the beginning.
Who was JFK?
I forget his first name. He was a president, though.
He was sniped (using video game vernacular). He was shot during a parade or something.
Do you know when? Month? Year? City or state?
Alright, let’s try Sept. 11, 2001. He was barely 2 at the time, and enjoyed a bag of Doritos while I watched the television inside the Western Maryland College student cafe with classmates, stunned to silence. Noah’s back was to the TV that morning. I made sure of that.
What comes to mind?
Two planes. One crashed into the twin towers, causing those buildings to crash. Killed everyone inside. Another plane crashed into a field (a 40-minute drive from where he stood during this phone call). I can’t remember what field. Those planes were hijacked by terrorists.
Two planes, two places, though, right?
Palm slap to forehead.
Noah, when you wrote a paper on the impact of Sept. 11, 2001, well, you had different information in that, right? And wasn’t that only two months ago?
Yeah. History is probably one of my worst subjects. It happened. I don’t see why people should dwell on it a lot.
At that point, I asked to talk with Josiah, his 4-year-old brother. Something — many things — seemed wrong, but I have a gut feeling that all too many children 14 and below would have similar answers.