Even though it was 50 years ago, I remember the exact moment I heard the news.
I was a skinny-limbed shy little nine-year-old girl who wore dresses to school (we all did back then) with matching hairbands holding back my light brown hair, which was growing out from the pixie haircut my mother made me get every summer. Black cat-eye glasses framed my tiny face and those corrective lenses helped me read the blackboard at school.
I was an excellent student – all A’s that year – in my fourth grade class at our local township elementary school. I remember the school vividly with its green tile walls and linoleum floors. With Mrs. Nathaniel as our teacher, the classroom was situated next door to the nurse’s office where the school telephone was located.
Back then, we didn’t have a school secretary and the nurse was not present every day, so we students learned proper telephone etiquette in order to answer the phone when it rang. Whichever student was on phone duty had permission to leave her/his desk and answer the phone, take a message, or beckon a teacher to a phone call requesting her.
It was a Friday. November 22, 1963. Lessons were being taught as usual. Since it was the last day of school for the week, we excitedly waited to go home and start our weekend. I don’t remember what lesson we were actually learning at that moment, but I do remember a strong knock sounded at the classroom door. As it opened, we saw our school principal, she of steel-grey hair, all-seeing eyes, and stern look. She frightened most of us and we wondered who was in trouble today. But her appearance was so different at that moment. Her face was blotchy and her eyes red-rimmed with tears. In a shaky voice, she announced, “The President’s been shot.”
We looked at our teacher, our safety net and protector, probably to take a cue from her as to what to do. Her mouth opened in a huge O; she looked incredulous and perhaps a fleeting look of panic or fear crossed her face. She scurried to the door, conferred with the principal, and then returned to stand before us.
Our teacher instructed us to quietly and quickly get out of our seats, pick up our chairs, and carry them single file to the cafeteria which doubled as our auditorium. We did as we were told without question. We lined up our desk chairs in rows and noticed the entire school body crammed into the area, all eyes glued on the one black and white television set in the school. And we all cried – students and teachers and cafeteria workers and the janitor alike.
The scene unfolded in front of our eyes with television reports trying to piece together what horrific event had happened in Dallas, Texas that day. And what went through my 9-year-old mind as I watched this at school and again for days at home? Incredible sorrow.
Even though I was young and didn’t know much about politics, I understood several things. I knew that John F. Kennedy was our President. Despite the fact that my parents did not vote for him, didn’t necessarily agree with his politics, and weren’t Kennedy supporters, they had instilled in me that no matter who was President of the United States, he was to be respected as the leader of our country. So we grieved for our fallen President out of respect for him.
As a youngster, I didn’t know what kind of man JFK really was. But I did know one thing. He was a husband and a father. He had two children a few years younger than me. And I wept for his family and his children who would wake up tomorrow without their daddy. I couldn’t imagine such a thing.
It was a sorrowful time in history. It was a frightening time in history. It was a turbulent time. And it was just beginning. The tumultuous 60’s were just ramping up and times were changing. And those were the times in which my generation grew up. In many ways, those times shaped us. In many ways, they taught us lessons we don’t ever want to repeat again.
That day in November is etched permanently in my mind – even now, 50 years after the fact. I’ve never forgotten it nor will I ever. For years, I plucked a book on Kennedy’s assassination off my parents’ bookshelf and perused the photos and words printed there, always pausing a little longer on the picture of Jackie Kennedy in her beautiful pink suit with the President’s blood staining it. Those images stay with me.
Years later, as a teenager, I would stand at Kennedy’s grave site in Arlington National Cemetery and watch the eternal flame flicker. And I would remember that shocking and frightening day in November.
As an adult, I’ve read quite a bit about JFK, his presidency, his family, his politics, his death, and have even visited the assassination site in Dallas. Not so long ago, I finished reading Bill O’Reilly’s version, Killing Kennedy. And every time, John F. Kennedy’s name is spoken, I read about him, or see an old photo of him, I’m transported back to that Friday, November 22, 1963.
I am nine and I am in the fourth grade and my President has just been assassinated.