21-Gun Salutes and Visits from JFK and Jackie: Inside the White House 'School' You Never Knew Existed

"When we were riding our tricycles on one of the roof decks close to the classroom, you could see below the dignitaries visiting the president," Avery Hatcher tells PEOPLE

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When it was time for Avery Hatcher to go to kindergarten each morning, a secret service agent would pick him up and drive the 5-year-old to class – in a school inside the White House!

“It was great, just so fun,” Hatcher, 58, a son of President John F. Kennedy’s associate press secretary, Andrew Hatcher, tells PEOPLE of his days finger painting, learning French and riding tricycles on a roof deck with pal Caroline Kennedy.

The school is part of the behind-the-scenes Kennedy family life featured in this week’s PEOPLE cover story, offering a look at life in the Kennedy family’s early child-rearing years with the release of nanny Maud Shaw‘s photos.

The White House kindergarten began in September 1962, and was set up by Jackie Kennedy in the solarium on the third floor of the mansion to enable Caroline remain on the grounds yet be with other children to learn.

“A lot of times [Jackie Kennedy] would walk Caroline to the classroom,” says Hatcher, noting Kennedy cousin Maria Shriver was a classmate.

Classroom guests were frequent and star-powered, including renowned cellist Pablo Casales and folk legend Pete Seeger.

“At the little performances Mrs. Kennedy was kind,” Hatcher says. “She would share with all the students, [she would say] ‘Oh, how are you doing Maria, Avery, Tommy.’ Just very gracious.”

Jackie Kennedy visited class “at least a couple times a year” while JFK’s visit were more rare. One sticks in Hatcher’s mind. “During school hours, when American Indians stopped by the classroom, President Kennedy said, ‘This is the school.’ ”

The students also had other bird’s-eye views of JFK’s official dealings.

“When we were riding our tricycles on one of the roof decks close to the classroom, you could see below the dignitaries visiting the president,” Hatcher says.

“I would love to watch the soldiers salute President Kennedy, and President Kennedy salute the honor guards. The pomp and circumstance as a young boy awed me.”

“Sometimes they would have 21-gun salutes,” he adds. “We’d see every one of the ceremonies. Whenever there was a cannon salute or 21-gun salute, the class was always watching it.”

During Hatcher’s first grade year, JFK was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, and the school was soon dissolved. Says Hatcher, now a Manhattan musician and building superintendent: “I feel very honored and priveledge to have had the experience.”

For all the intimate photos and exclusive remembrances of JFK, First Lady Jackie and their life with two small children in the White House, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

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