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Clairemont Teacher Looks To Turn U.S. Presidency Collection Into Touring Exhibit

Video by Katie Schoolov

All California high school students learn about American presidents in their US History classes. But for about 20 years students at San Diego's Clairemont High School have been getting unique, hands-on insight into the presidency. KPBS education reporter Kyla Calvert tells us about a teacher who wants to take the experience on the road.

Photo caption:

Photo by Katie Schoolov

History Teacher Jim Fletcher and Clairemont High School Senior Emily Vastola talk about a dress made for an Eisenhower presidential campaign in a room at the school that has been turned into a museum of presidential memorabilia, Jan. 14, 2013.

Like any longtime teacher, Jim Fletcher has lessons and materials he relies on every year — but for Fletcher that includes a 40,000-piece collection of U.S. presidential memorabilia.

— Jim Fletcher has taught history at Clairemont High for 27 years. Like any longtime teacher he has lessons and materials he relies on every year. But for Fletcher that includes a 40,000-piece collection of presidential memorabilia.

A small portion of the collection lines the walls of a room the school uses for tutoring. Fletcher started collecting political pieces when he was a student at Clairemont in the 1970s. He brought some of those first pieces into classes to show his students and the rest, as they say, is history — literally.

“And they ultimately said to me ‘Fletch, you should start a museum,’" Fletcher said. "And we turned it around and I said ‘Well, why don’t we start a museum?’ And so I really did, in concert with that group of students.”

Fletcher and his students created this mini-museum as part of a summer class. The students researched the pieces and solicited donations.

Twenty years later, he thinks the pieces still get students fired up.

“With high school students who are bombarded by distractions, history needs to come to the table hot and preferably in flames," Fletcher said. "So it really helps if you have something that you can show them that’s 50 years old that they can touch and feel and examine for what it has to offer them.”

For Clairemont senior Jesse Gundersen, it was an issue of MAD Magazine that helped him warm to history as something more than dates and names to memorize. On the front cover, the magazine congratulates John F. Kennedy for winning the election. When you turn the magazine over, the back cover congratulates Richard Nixon for winning.

“It adds a new layer of depth," Gundersen said, "because otherwise you think of it as part of the past and, you know, it’s really important, because it was part of their everyday lives and they’re getting through their lives just like we are now.”

His classmate Emily Vastola got some insight into how Americans have changed by trying on one of the collection's newer items. It’s a white dress with "Ike" stamped all over it in big, red letters. It’s now on a mannequin in the museum next to a framed photo of women wearing similar dresses with matching parasols at an Eisenhower campaign stop.

“You don’t see anything like that anymore and it’s cool that they used to do that and that people were so into the elections and getting to know the presidents like that," Vastola said. "It’s really awesome.”

Another dress in the corner of the room probably was never worn. It was made for local people to wear during a trip Kennedy was scheduled to make to French-speaking West Africa in early 1964, a few months after his assassination.

“So by way of greeting they would be wearing a dress emblazoned with a huge image of the president," Fletcher said. "And across the bottom, in French of course, it says 'We will never forget Africa.'”

Not everything in the collection is so poignant. There are lots of punny campaign buttons, kitschy salt and pepper shakers and even an antique noisemaker. The wooden noisemaker from a 1904 campaign event for Teddy Roosevelt and his future Vice President, Charles Fairbanks, still reliably fills the museum with a racket.

Each year, 200 to 300 Clairemont students use the collection as part of their coursework, Fletcher estimates. When there was more funding for field trips, elementary and middle school students visited the museum, too.

“We start our teaching of U.S. history at the end of the Civil War. So any of the pre-Civil War presidents aren’t really covered in the teaching of U.S. history in high school," Fletcher said. "But they are in elementary school and the middle schools. So we’ve tried to bring in as many students, when funds would allow, as possible into this museum.”

In place of field trips, Fletcher and a couple of the other teachers are raising money for display cases. Clairemont students will build the cases in some of the school's career tech classes. They're hoping to build 20 cases and fill them with some of the thousands of pieces now tucked away in a storage room to lend to elementary and middle schools.

Fletcher hopes sharing the pieces will help students around the district get excited about their history.

“It tells us who we were and it helps us figure out who we want to be,” he said.

And after 27 years, those are lessons he’s still excited about giving.

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