Monday, February 16, 2009
Today is Presidents' Day, a holiday that began as a tribute to the first U.S. president, George Washington. In fact, in some places it is still called Washington's Birthday, and that is the official name still recognized by the federal government.
The day became a government holiday in 1885. It was celebrated on Feb. 22, which is Washington's actual birthday.
In 1971, the holiday was moved to the third Monday in February. Though it's still officially Washington's Birthday, the day has become known as Presidents' Day to recognize both Washington and Lincoln.
Of course, we don't need a holiday to remind us of the accomplishments of those giants of American history. But what about the other presidents? Barack Obama is the 44th president of the United States (though he is the 43rd man to be president, because Grover Cleveland was the 22nd and 24th). That's a lot of names to remember.
Memory experts say there are tricks that can help you remember information.
One way is to break up information into groups, which is called "chunking." You could memorize states by region, for example, and the presidents by historical era: the earliest years, pre-Civil War, Reconstruction.
Or you could use what is called a "mnemonic device" (pronounced ni-MAH-nik). It's any kind of formula to help you remember. For example, if you want to remember the planets in order from the sun, think: "My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas." The first letter of each word is the first letter of the planet: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto (if you still count Pluto as a planet).
Make up your own device for the presidents. Start with the first seven: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Adams and Jackson. How about: "Will And Jeff Made Many Awful Jokes!"
If none of this works, you can learn "The American Presidents" song.
It was created by Genevieve Madeline Ryan, 19, of Potomac, now a student at Princeton University. When she was 12 or 13, her dad asked her to memorize the order of the presidents as a Father's Day gift. With the help of presidential historian Hugh Sidey, she came up with rhymes to help her remember. She then got former National Symphony Orchestra conductor Leonard Slatkin to help her put her rhymes to music.
You can hear the song and see a visual presentation by going to the White House Historical Society's Web site, http://www.whitehousehistory.org, and clicking on "The American Presidents." There is lots of other information on U.S. history there, too.
The song starts:
"America's president number one,
Founding Father Washington.
John Adams, second president,
The very first White House resident"
And it ends:
"George W. Bush, number forty three,
Strengthened Homeland Security.
First to be elected of African descent,
Obama our Forty-Fourth President."
-- Valerie Strauss