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Fall 2012

Presidents as Students

illustrationIllustration by Daniel Vasconcellos

Woodrow Wilson couldn't read until he was nine years old. As a young boy, Andrew Johnson was sold as an apprentice to a tailor and never attended school a day in his life. One of Harry Truman's teachers said, "Nobody thought that he'd go far at all." John Tyler once thrashed a teacher and then locked him in a closet. Eleanor Roosevelt was kicked out of school at six for lying. Franklin Roosevelt disliked his private school so much that he once wrote to his parents, "I'm hoping to get pink eye so I can come home."

Not exactly stories you'd expect about some of our more famous presidents and first ladies, which is exactly why James Longo, C.A.S.'90, Ed.D.'94, professor of education and chair of the education department at Washington and Jefferson College, decided to write his new book, From Classroom to White House.

"The way history is taught, the personalities of people are washed away," he says. "They become iconic figures, but they are just people like you and me. That's often lost. One of the things I wanted to do with the book was show how human these people were and the role that education played in their lives."

The book also offers lessons, Longo says, such as no student should ever be written off and it only takes one teacher to turn things around for even the least interested student.

"One of the biggest surprises I had in researching the book is how often presidents and first ladies are late bloomers and underachievers in school," he says. "You automatically think John and Jackie Kennedy had the sparkle or that Barbara Bush would have been fun to go to school with. But then you read that John was a dreamer who could never find his books and was always disheveled or that Jackie regretted feeling like she had to hide how smart she was." In the book, Bush was described by former schoolmates as "sarcastic and mean."

Some presidents had trouble learning. Wilson, for example, was slow to speak and read. While his parents thought he was brilliant, his teachers thought he was a "dolt," Longo says. It wasn't until Wilson went to Princeton that he connected with a teacher for the first time. As he wrote to his father, "I have made a discovery; I have a mind."

Ronald Reagan, in his autobiography, described himself as the last kid chosen, the self-conscious student who dreaded public speaking. But then in high school, something happened: He met a teacher who, despite wearing then-unfashionable thick glasses, was confident and loved creativity, which he nurtured in Reagan.

"It is difficult for even the most insightful teacher to predict which student will end up a hero," writes Longo, who knows from firsthand experience — he taught in public schools in St. Louis for more than a decade.

Longo says the idea for the book started when he was a doctoral student and would eat lunch in Conroy Commons with senior lecturer Harold "Doc" Howe, a former commissioner of education in the Johnson administration. Howe shared stories, including ones about how Johnson the teacher influenced Johnson the president.

"After our lunches, I'd run back to my little office and write the stories down," Longo says, "before I forgot them."