Remember school assemblies? No, they weren't very memorable.
I do remember some ghastly films about venereal disease and blood-spattered car wreckage. Most memorable was an aging fellow who made a living by delivering inspirational talks. He posed a question — what is the length of the marathon? — to demonstrate the value of education: He offered $5, a healthy amount in 1967, for a correct answer.
One person in the auditorium got it — 26 miles, 385 yards. That person was me, a track nut. Until that day, the speaker had never failed to stump his audience. Later, I thought about how reluctantly the old gent peeled five crinkled ones off a tiny roll when the assembly was over.
I was a slacker and so were my pals, counting minutes to lunch-hour hijinks, football practice or cruising Tom and Mac's, the local hangout.
I wonder how I'd have felt about obligatory viewing of a “live” speech from President Lyndon B. Johnson – that is, if we had TVs in those dark ages. I'd have been disinterested, most likely. Johnson's oratory probably wouldn't have roused me out of my usual torpor.
A more interesting question is whether angry adults would have raised enough ruckus to scare the school district out of showing an LBJ speech (or to prompt the school district to invent imaginary obstacles to its showing). I think not. But that's not necessarily a sign of better times. Conformity was valued above all else in those days. Parents weren't any more likely to complain about a presidential speech than about the “Pastor of Bourbon Street” and the other evangelists and charlatans who talked their way onto assembly programs at our public school, where the day always began with a PA prayer.
Barack Obama is not Lyndon Johnson. His otherness – race, name, ideas – contributed to the irrational fear of his televised presence in a classroom. But fear of his gifts may have been a more important factor, even if the protestors didn't recognize that fear in themselves. It is easy to demonize someone known only by the caricatures of his critics. It is far harder to demonize someone you can see and hear for yourself, especially someone with a proven appeal to young people. Many high schoolers will vote in 2010; lots more in 2012.
Obama had a political goal, to be sure: to wrap the presidency in popular objectives and expose millions to his skills. But schools have pep rallies such as Obama planned all the time, with speakers of far less stature than the leader of the free world. The craven school officials who jumped to assure patrons that Obama's face wouldn't darken their classrooms only reinforced most students' already-low opinion of their wardens. “What are they afraid of?” the slackers would ask, though likely in more colorful language.
I had to laugh at the ritzy local private school that informed parents that its school day wouldn't be “interrupted” by a presidential speech. The newsletter added ever so delicately, on the remote chance any broad-minded people were on the circulation list, “We encourage those families who would like for their children to see the President's address to make arrangements to record it and view it together as a family at a later time.”
You'd think a national talk on condom use had been planned, not a presidential pep talk. But guess what? As with sex ed, the kids still will get the message.