Perhaps the best measure of Chelsea Clinton’s capability as a public speaker was her ability to mention diarrhea to an audience of junior high-aged kids — repeatedly — with nobody laughing.

The former first daughter, author, and adjunct professor at Columbia University was this afternoon asked a fairly open-ended question by a young student at San Francisco Friends School in the Mission: “What is your favorite part of being an activist?” Clinton, who is traveling the nation promoting her children’s books, started off her answer politically. Of course it’s “talking to young people and figuring out how I can help you.”

Then she took things in a different direction.

“I enjoy refocusing the attention paid to me on something more worthy of it.” To wit, she touched on efforts to address the plight of child brides in this and other nations, an issue she’d mentioned only moments earlier. Then, out of the blue, she mentioned “combatting diarrhea around the world. … I find it unconscionable that hundreds of thousands of kids die every year from this. It’s something people are uncomfortable talking about.”

The students, who kept themselves entertained before Clinton’s appearance by swapping exquisitely bad, charming jokes — How many tickles does it take to make the octopus laugh? TEN-tickles! — kept it together. Perhaps some of the parents and teachers standing on the periphery struggled a bit more. But the kids were all right.

Chelsea Clinton reveals to her youthful questioners that, while she, too, went to a Quaker school, she did not know “Tim” in her school days. Photo by Camille Cohen.

Clinton, who is speaking at schools in every city she visits promoting her children’s books She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World and She Persisted Around the Worldspoke to two sets of students at the Quaker school: kindergarten-through-fourth graders and fifth-through-eighth graders. The questions from the former group were not the sort to lead to discussions about lethal diarrhea or reveal that, in Massachusetts, 12-year-olds may marry.

The younger students asked Clinton, among other things, how old she is (38); when she was born (Feb. 27, 1980), and “if you knew Tim when you went to a Friends school in Washington, D.C.” (She did not).

When asked which of her profiles of inspirational women she liked best, Clinton declined to answer — but did state that she was glad that, in one of the books’ opening panels, she was able to sneak in a picture of her own mother and Coretta Scott King. She also read the kids snippets about a number of the women she profiled, including Maria Tallchief, Sally Ride, Caroline Herschel, Ruby Bridges, and — to audible gasps of joy — Joanne “J.K.” Rowling.

Clinton’s standby when confronted by a sea of young questioners was “Oh, gosh. So many hands.” This was said a lot, whether those hands were attached to kindergarteners or junior high-aged children. But the questions weren’t the same.

The older children asked mostly broad questions that gave Clinton the opportunity to say as much or as little as she wanted to say. Sometimes she said quite a bit. When asked if “when your dad was president and all” her parents had high expectations for her, she answered “absolutely. And I had high expectations for myself.” She continued that she was “blessed and extremely privileged, and that includes the color of my skin. I never had to worry about having a roof over my head or food on my table.” In a similar vein, when asked if she would still be where she is in life if her family wasn’t “kinda political,” she said, “I don’t know. That’s the honest answer.”

Chelsea Clinton, a mother of two with a third on the way, went in-depth with students at the San Francisco Friends School about the dire situation of child brides and the ongoing problem of lethal childhood diarrhea. Photo by Camille Cohen.

Clinton spent the lion’s share of her time with the older children talking about the plight of what she described as 750 million young people worldwide, almost exclusively girls, made to enter into marriage while children. She bemoaned that, even in this country, girls in such a situation are unable to hire a divorce attorney, a situation she finds “soooo infuriating.”

Girls forced into child matrimony, she continued, suffer higher childbirth death rates, are more prone to drop out of high school, and, overall, experience deficient life outcomes.

This, she said, was something to consider on the eve of Valentine’s Day. So, that was a pretty serious moment — rather a long way from Ten-tickles! 

And then the young people applauded the former first daughter, and she was off on her way to the next city.