January 20, 1961. Three days after I’d turned 13. We watched JFK’s inauguration speech on a black and white television that Miss Alexander brought into her middle school literature classroom for the special occasion. You’ve probably seen pictures of that speech. Kennedy’s dark hair, Chief Justice Earl Warren’s white hair, both blowing unruly on a cold windy day.
The short speech gave me chills.
To those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.
We all lived with the specter of those “dark powers of destruction unleashed by science. Cue the mushroom clouds again. That kind of talk reached the middle schoolers loud and clear.
So let us begin anew–remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.
We knew what he meant. Listen, Russians. We all wanted peace with the Russians, but we, 12- and 13-year-old kids, didn’t trust them.
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
Kennedy’s words resonated. In that classroom we all believed in him. The Kennedy-Nixon debates, and the campaign, were forgotten. Kennedy was president and we — middle schoolers — believed in him. Maybe the adults were still playing out the Kennedy vs. Nixon election; but for us, this was the president. The first president we were really aware of, as we crossed over from kids to teenagers. We didn’t realize it yet, but this laid foundations for the changes to come.