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Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR): Childhood

For the first eight years of his life, FDR was educated by private tutors. At age nine, he attended his first school, not in Hyde Park but in Bad Neuheim, Germany, where his parents were living temporarily. That's right…the president who led the United States during World War II went to school in the country he would later conquer.

Once he began school, Franklin learned that he was a popular kid. From a young age he seems to have been quick, outgoing and gregarious, and he used these qualities to his advantage. One of his teachers later described him as a "bright young fellow" who quickly made lots of friends.3 He also seems to have a gift for gab, or at least for getting his way. When he was fourteen, he and a tutor went on a cycling tour of Germany. They were arrested several times for minor traffic violations, but Franklin talked his way out of a ticket each time.4

That fall, back in the United States, Franklin was sent off to Groton, one of the most exclusive prep schools in the country.5 Groton had been founded thirteen years earlier to provide "intellectual, moral, and physical development" for the sons of America's most elite families. Each grade consisted of only twenty boys. The annual tuition was $500, about twice what the average American family lived on for a year at that time, and there were no scholarships.6

Like his mother, the adults at Groton made sure that FDR was not spoiled. Although this was a school for privileged kids, daily life was highly structured. Like every boy at Groton, FDR led a Spartan life. He lived in a small cubicle with a standard-issue bed, dresser, and chair; no posters were allowed on the walls. He woke up at 6:45 each morning, took a cold shower in a communal washroom, had a full day of classes, athletics and chapel, and shook the hand of the headmaster and his wife before going to bed at night.

Maybe because he was used to rigor, FDR jumped into school life with enthusiasm. He wasn't the smartest kid in his class; in his first year he ranked fourth out of nineteen, and the headmaster later remembered him as "of more than ordinary intelligence…but not brilliant."7 He wasn't great at sports, either. As a freshman, Franklin was small for his age, only 5'3" and 105 pounds, and couldn't tackle or run too fast.8 But because he was outgoing and social, he made friends quickly, again becoming a popular and well-liked student.

After graduating from Groton in 1900, FDR moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts for college at Harvard, then on to New York City for Columbia Law School. Once he was away from his mother's watchful eye and Groton's rigid rules, FDR led a more luxurious life. He spent money freely and often paid as much attention to socializing as he did to his studies. In law school, especially, he did very little work, leading one of his professors to comment that he had "little aptitude for the law."9 In his first year at Columbia, Roosevelt got B's, C's and a D. After two years, he passed the bar, dropped out of law school, got a job as a lawyer and never looked back.

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