Back When I Was a Child Prodigy

Last night I blogged about the State of the Union Address and how it has always intrigued me. I explained how I grew to appreciate the speech so much because of the reverence it was given in my household growing up. Well, I think I left a small piece of the equation out last night. I actually did it on purpose though because I wanted to elaborate on that small piece in tonight’s post. Believe it or not, my love for the State of the Union didn’t just start when I was nine years old, it actually started much earlier.

When I was a little kid, I had an obsession with the United States Presidents. A full blown obsession. When I turned three years old, I became fascinated with money, both coins and bills. While I could care less about the value of the money, I wanted to know everything about the faces who graced the bills and coins. It did not take long before I knew whose face was on every U.S. piece of currency from the penny all the way up to the rare $100,000 bill (Woodrow Wilson was on that note). After my parents explained to me that there were many more Presidents who existed but did not have their image on currency, my young brain felt the need to know about these “left out” leaders. My parents bought me a United States Presidents poster and a deck of U.S. Presidents flash cards. The flash cards had the image of the President along with their number and the years they held in office on the front side and then a pretty basic bio on the back. These cards held my attention better than any toy or game I had. Through my constant urging, my parents would continually quiz me on whose face was on each card. They also read and re-read the bios so often that I am sure they probably could recite them even today from memory. Pretty soon I did not even need the cards. By the time I turned four years old, I knew the name of every single United States President in order along with what number they were (I.e. George Washington = #1, James Monroe = #5, Ronald Reagan = #40, etc.).

I quickly became a hit amongst my relatives, especially when it came to my mom’s large extended Italian family. We would be at family get-togethers and great aunts and great uncles who seemed to me to be all at least 100 years old would get an absolute kick out of my little talent. “NUMBER 23!?” they would shout at me. “Benjamin Harrison,” I would confidently say immediately after the number came out of their mouth. “NUMBER 12!?” Zachary Taylor. “HOW ABOUT NUMBER 34!?” Dwight Eisenhower. They would then switch it up….”WHAT NUMBER WAS MILLIARD FILLMORE!?” Number 13. “OKAY, OKAY, HOW ABOUT WILLIAM MCKINLEY!?” Number 25. It was second nature to me…and yes, I liked the attention.

My parents started reading to me United States Presidents books from the adult section of the public library. As the books contained biographies of each President which were quite lengthy, my mom or dad would read one biography, or sometimes two if I was very lucky, each night to me. I collected more and more Presidential memorabilia. Our neighbor across the street who was a former high school history teacher and who also shared a love for the Presidents would come over with a mini quiz book on our favorite subject and ask me questions. At the age of four, I knew every random detail there was to know about the Presidents. Who was the only President not to marry (James Buchanan), which President held the first Easter egg hunt on the White House lawn (Rutherford Hayes), which President served in both world wars (Dwight Eisenhower)…all this stuff I had tucked into my brain.

When I was five years old and entered Kindergarten, I would stand in the middle of the circle and recite the Presidents to my classmates. When it was my day to be VIP, I would bring in my President books to show off. Teachers from all the different grades in the schools would come into my classroom and play the same game that my relatives would play with me (“TELL ME, WHO WAS THE #20 PRESIDENT!?” James Garfield).

When I entered the first grade, a strange thing started to happen. My interest for knowing everything about the Presidents started to wane a little. I became more interested in the WWF and sports. As the next couple years of elementary school went by, my knowledge started to deteriorate. I was no longer the “little genius” that I once was. I was pretty much just a regular kid.

I do feel a little bad because I think my parents had pretty high hopes for me when they saw what I was doing and retaining at the years of three, four, and five. I have talked to my mom and she said this to me, “Well Brent, at that age dad and I really thought you were going to go on and do great things… . (after a little bit of silence on the phone)…not that you aren’t doing great things right now!” Thanks Mom 🙂

I know she means well and I completely understand what she was trying to say. I think maybe when I was four years old she saw me working for NASA rather than in sports. But oh well, that’s how it goes. I can kind of see my parents watching me go through my schooling only as a slightly higher than average student and looking at each other when I was not around and asking “What happened to our Einstein??” Despite not winning that Nobel Peace Prize (well at least not yet anyway), I know they are proud of me for the person I have become. All three of us can live with that.

So I guess the point of this story is twofold. First of all, I told it so I could brag a little bit about the knowledge (or just great memory skills) that I had when I was a little guy. Come to think of it, I don’t really even know if I can toot my own horn too much about that because as I have lived my life I have heard of other cases where toddlers have mastered the Presidents of the United States as well. It is kind of weird, there is just something about our nation’s leaders that grips even the youngest of minds.

Okay, so I guess that leaves me with the second, and real, reason why I told this story, and that was to continue to explain my love for the State of the Union Address. When I was young, I developed a love for the Presidency. While a lot of my knowledge has left me, my passion has not. The State of the Union Address is the grand showcase of what it means to be President. It embodies the spirit, tradition, and pride of the office, something that took hold of me when I was three years old and has still not left me twenty-two years later. Don’t Blink.

The State of the Union Address: More Than Politics

Tomorrow night President Obama will face the nation to give his State of the Union Address. Now I will watch to see what he has to say about the economy and about health care. I will watch to see what he has to say about foreign policy and what he has to say about the military. I will watch to see what he has to say about social security and what he has to say about energy. I am curious to see what he outlines regarding issues such as education, web censorship, gay rights, Occupy Wall Street, and immigration. Online gambling and the environment are a couple of other topics I look forward to him addressing. Also, I want to hear him really lay the groundwork for why he should be elected to a second term. Obviously, I am ready to watch the State of the Union for its intended purpose, to hear the report on where our country currently stands and the gameplan for this year.
However, the policy part of the speech is not even close to what interests me most about the State of the Union. While I do have a genuine interest in politics, I don’t really have what you would call a passion for the subject. I read the newspaper every day, I educate myself on the issues, and I have a pretty firm stance on where I stand. But I never felt inclined to join debate in high school nor have I ever or would I ever openly campaign on the streets for a specific candidate (unless if it was a family member). I would never engage in a political discussion with co-workers nor would I write on this blog a political manifesto. Because I don’t have an innate fire for politics, the meat and potatoes of the State of the Union only does so much for me. But that is fine, because as I just said, there is something else that attracts me to this certain night.
I love watching the State of the Union for the tradition, formality, and importance of the speech.
Growing up, the State of the Union was always on at my house. I can remember coming home at night from whatever practice I had and then my dad turning on the TV, always just in time for us to see the important people start entering and taking their seats in the House Chamber. Then would come my absolute favorite part: “Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States.”
The State of the Union Address was the only thing growing up that my parents ever allowed to be on the TV while we ate dinner. The speech held a special distinction and importance that allowed it to air on our small kitchen television set. Even though I come from a sports family, no game or sports program ever interrupted our family dinner time, but the State of the Union did.
This reverence and respect for the speech was harnessed in me at a young age and it has stayed with me ever since. I have held onto this special mystique and still watch the State of the Union as a twenty-five year old with the same awe and appreciation as I did when I was a twelve year old.
As I said, the politics really take second fiddle for me when I watch the SOTU. As opposed to watching the speech, I focus more on the “show.” I love watching the camera zoom in on all the various people in attendance at the event. Seeing the past Presidents is always cool. You always want to see how they are holding up and how their wives look as well. I also use the speech to really make an assessment on how the current President looks himself. The Presidency is brutal and it ages everyone. You would be crazy if you said President Obama has not aged about ten years in appearance since taking office. In last year’s SOTU it became pretty obvious to me the toll it had already taken on him. There are always special guests that make appearances as well that help make the speech fun (I will always remember Rosa Parks getting a standing ovation during one of Clinton’s speeches). Growing up, I would always look for our representatives from Washington State to be caught on camera and would always feel a sense of pride when a certain senator or congressperson was specifically singled out and a graphic would show up with their name and their designation as a rep from my home state. I love to people watch in general and to see how individuals react in certain situations so watching how politicians, dignitaries, and special guests conduct themselves during one of the most formal events in the nation (aside from Inauguration Day) is very intriguing to me.
I like the absurdness of the speech as well. The long periods of applause for the President are always uncalled for but deep down inside I know that is just the way it is, no matter what person or which party is in control of the White House. I also get a real kick out of watching the people in attendance at the speech who don’t stand up and applaud for every sentence that the President says. Watching the non-standees shake their heads and grimace always makes me laugh. The way the speech is completely scripted is also humorous to me as well. The media already has a copy of the speech before the President even begins to deliver it. But again, that is just the way it is and what tradition calls for. So even though I find it silly, I also find it totally acceptable.
Finally, what I appreciate so much about the State of the Union is just the importance that is placed on it. Even though the speech is scripted pretty much to each and every word and even though the President is not even required to give such an address, the nation stops everything that it is doing for it. All major networks, public service stations, and the many cable news stations carry the speech live. As a kid I remember clicking through every station that carried the speech, making notes of which stations were using which camera angles and being amused that some of the stations had the speech more delayed than others. The debate on all the news stations both pre and post speech is intense. After the speech, you know the President is going to be hailed a hero by his party and then absolutely picked apart by the opposition party. I eat up the statistics that will come out after Obama’s speech tomorrow: The total minutes of clapping, the number of times he said the word “occupy”, the rank of where his speech falls all-time in length, the number of times he took a drink of water, etc. etc. Twitter will be crazy tomorrow night. Expect big delays. Nothing against you President Obama and CNN, but I will not be getting your tweets directly to my phone tomorrow, I plan to watch it myself, thus I do not need a play-by-play on what is said. And it pretty much goes without saying that this year’s State of the Union carries with it even more weight and scrutiny than usual as it is a Presidential election year.
Enjoy the show, ummm I mean speech, tomorrow night.  Please count it as just another example of how lucky we are to live in this country. Our nation’s leader is going to give us an assessment on where the country is at and how we plan to move forward. After that, the Republican Party gets to give their rebuttal. In so many countries where citizens are kept in the dark and thought of as too stupid to comprehend such important issues, we get to hear about what concerns our country and then engage in discussion about it. Be sure to watch the State of the Union tomorrow night. Don’t Blink.