My 10th grade American mathematics teacher whispers the horrible news: “Somebody shot the president.”
Panic starts, spreading quickly through the classroom. Everyone is talking, particularly those who only hear part of the news.
Someone asks her, my favorite teacher, to repeat what was overheard. “The President has just been shot,” she says. Her face now becoming ashen white.
Oh my God, one student, an African-American girl, says as she holds her hands to her face. I never saw so much anguish as I did on that girl’s pretty young face. She starts to cry. Others talk. They talk over each other. The noise gets louder. You can’t hear your self-think, everyone is talking what sounds like “gibberish” and for the first time in my young life, I think I understand what the word, “chaos,” actually means. There seems to be no escape from the complete and utter disorder.
Next, our confident and normally strong teacher — Miss Kelly — is restoring a little calm, raising her voice to get our attention, telling us to gather our school things, to leave the classroom and to go to the auditorium.
All classes at Dobbins Technical Institute, a trade school here in Philadelphia, PA, are merging together in assembly. No one knows why. Must be a speaker or an important video for us to see, I think. It couldn’t have anything to do with something so far removed from us as, what might be happening outside of school, my home town, my own little world. Could it?
The wooden seats are uncomfortable to sit in, as everyone is squirming around, talking in our low voices. No one seems to know why we are gathering together, this November 22nd, in the Year of Our Lord, Nineteen Hundred and Sixty-Three.
And then it happens. I am sitting closer to my history teacher than any other student. We are separated from the rest of my class. Alone. Another teacher, a former football player who now teaches trigonometry, has just said something to her that I can’t quite make out. My teacher turns to me. I can still see her long, dark hair and the dark glasses that she would peer over when trying to challenge us with a question or two. I admit now that I had a crush on her, but I never told anyone. That’s one reason I went to graduate school and obtained a masters’ degree in American History. She helped me believe in history, and more importantly, she helped me to believe in myself.
What she says as she turns her eyes to me, her glasses now removed from her face, as she focuses all of her adult vision toward me, a kid, ten days shy of his 14th birthday, I will remember ’til the day I die.
“The president is dead,” she says, as her voice cracks slightly, a far cry from the usual professional tone she offers in our classes.
John F. Kennedy, the youngest person ever to be elected president of the United States of America, is killed on this day in November of 1963.
It means more to me now than Thanksgiving Day will ever mean during the month of November. More than Veterans Day. More than all Saints’ Day. More than . . . ah, to hell with Black Friday!
I remember this day as another American generation will recall “9 – 11;” recall what they were doing and where each and every one of us was when the airplanes crashed into the twin towers in New York City. None living with the horror will ever forget.
Why does tragedy always stand out so much?
Perhaps, to remind us that a brief moment “in time” can last a “lifetime.”
And that we can recall it decades later, perhaps with a little more love, compassion, and understanding.