Remembering JFK


I was not alive when John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas 50 years ago. Nor were any current students at Staples. But this incident is so ingrained in the American psyche that we need not have witnessed it to feel a connection to the haunting tragedy and the man in the middle of it all. As Americans, we were born into it.

Still, something about JFK’s assassination is especially jarring for a younger generation. It is an inconveniently unnerving reminder of mortality, a concept that is rarely in focus for people our age. That John Fitzgerald Kennedy, wealthy, handsome, successful, the most powerful man in the world at the time, an embodiment of that which many of us aspire to be, could perish when his presidency, not to mention his life, was still in the middle notes of a crescendo shines a grating light on our own vulnerability.

There is also that which we share with JFK’s legacy: the weight of possibility. In the midst of college admissions season, we stand straddling the line of adolescence and adulthood, contemplating projections of what our futures might be. And so too does an entire nation project upon the late president who might have been and done so much more, or less. While today historians criticize JFK’s days in office, pointing to a weak stance on civil rights, an early fumble in the Vietnam War, and the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy still enjoys the insurance of uncertainty. Who can say what would have transpired had he not been deprived of the chance to finish out his term and possibly earn a second? In this way, the criticism is discredited in part by the lingering what-ifs that surround those phantom years.

Even as teenagers, we grapple with these same what-ifs. What if I don’t get into a college I want to go to? What if my major is fruitless? What if I end up alone or unhappy? High school is a comfort zone that we will all soon have to forsake to answer these questions. But JFK is frozen, suspended in time. Maybe there is a part of us that envies this stagnancy. A recent Gallup poll put Kennedy’s approval rating at 85%, much greater than the 58% he enjoyed in office at the time of his death. As tragic as Kennedy’s death was and is, wouldn’t it be nice to be immortalized just on the brink of success or failure?

And yet it is also all the more troubling that this man who captivated a nation, both then and now, can never validate the claims of his supporters or his critics, whichever way history would have gone. It is as if the country has been forced to put down a novel right before a climax we will never see and a resolution we will never know.

It seems hopelessly incongruous that we will be given the chance to forge our own legacies, whether positive or negative, and this president will not. The future of a nation probably does not hang in the balance of our college admissions processes, or even our lives beyond that. But this generation is just as much the future of America as John F. Kennedy would have been.

As we move into that future, the what-ifs won’t go away. We’ll grow up and change and face change and make change and there will be a lot of scary uncertainties to consider. But it is important to keep in mind that what is infinitely scarier than the possibility of failure is losing the opportunity to fail at all.