Friday, November 22, 1963, began like any other day. Because it was drizzly, I wore my new, blue raincoat. As I drove to the elementary school where I was a first year teacher, I heard a peculiar flapping sound outside the door. Not until I had reached my school and parked, did I realize that part of my new raincoat belt had been caught outside. I remember the sinking feeling when I saw it wet and battered. I remember thinking, “Well, it’s done. I’m not going to think about it anymore.” That’s how my day began. The end would be a lot worse.
I remember nothing more until the afternoon recess, which I spent at my desk, grading papers. When I heard the end of recess bell, I headed for the teacher’s lounge, knowing I had just enough time to make the round and return to my classroom door in time to see my students come down the hall.
As I stepped into the empty teacher’s lounge, I saw on the table, the Ft. Wayne, Indiana newspaper. The headlines trumpeted the warm reception President and Mrs. Kennedy were enjoying in Texas. I was not a Kennedy fan. My thought was, “big deal!” Then, I checked my mail cubicle and hurried from the lounge.
On the way back, one of the second grade teachers was standing outside her classroom door, waiting for her students. As I approached, she called my name and said, “Did you hear that President Kennedy got shot?” To my mind came several political jokes from previous elections that had started with similar questions. I had fallen for both. This time, bemused, I said, “Alright, Vida, I’ll bite. What’s the punch line?” “It’s no joke,” she said. “He was shot during a parade in Dallas; that’s all I know.” After a stunned reaction, I continued on to my room.
On Fridays, following last recess, my class had religious education. The teacher for this class always took my students straight from coming in off the playground, down the steps and outside to a trailer that served as an extra classroom. On that day, however, she was late so I directed my students to take their seats where they waited with their coats on. In a few minutes she appeared at the door and motioned me out into the hall, where she apologized for being late. Then she told me she had just heard on radio that the president had died in a Dallas hospital. I was stunned and could find no words. We shared a brief moment of silence.
I did not continue to grade papers in my free time, as I normally would have done. I sat at my desk recalling how only minutes earlier, I had made the trip to the teacher’s lounge and the day had still been normal. I yearned to be back in that frame of time. I recalled thinking, “big deal!” upon entering the lounge at seeing the headlines, and regretted allowing the thought. I recalled my battered belt of the day’s beginning, and thought how inconsequential it now seemed.
I didn’t have the heart to tell my students that President Kennedy was shot and now dead. Nor did any of them indicate when they returned to the room that they had heard. Thus, I sent them to their buses still innocent of the world’s evil. That evening, my sister told me my niece, in first grade, had come home from her school, terrified. “Someone had killed the president”, said my niece, “and maybe was going to kill us too!”
Like most Americans, we spent the three day weekend glued to the television, immersed in the oppressive gloom that permeated our nation. By the time I’d arrived home from school, on that Friday afternoon, bit by bit, information on the assassin was rapidly pouring forth. First – how in fleeing the scene he had killed a bystander, then a police officer by the last name of Tripett; his apprehension in a theatre; his name Lee Harvey Oswald; his alias – O. H. Lee; his date and year of birth: October 18th, 1939, which I curiously noted, made him just one day older than me.
Throughout the evening we continued to get snippets of information about Lee Harvey Oswald. We learned he was a dissident who had once left the United States to live in Russia; that he had returned to America with a Russian wife and had since engaged in anti-American activities. As this news broke I recalled reading about Oswald leaving America for Russia, several years earlier when I was living and working in Washington, D. C. Then, we watched, over and over, in astonishment and horror as Oswald, himself, was gunned down in a Dallas police station by a Dallas night club owner named Jack Ruby.
This was not the America we had known. Television was still a new medium and that weekend, it presented gripping news scenes to the still innocent American psyche. We were mesmerized by ceremonial trappings of our fallen leader. Images were etched in our minds: long lines of mourners waiting to pass the closed casket that lay in state in the rotunda of the U S Capitol; the veiled, stoic face of Jackie Kennedy, clothed in black; the obedient salute of the child Americans had come to know as John-John; Jackie, at the end of a pew in a Catholic church,”genuflecting” (I learned a new word).
I can still hear the cadenced, haunting drums as the funeral procession passed on Pennsylvania Avenue, where a few years earlier, my own feet had daily trod. I can still see the spirited horse, Black Jack, boots turned in the stirrups — as symbol of a fallen leader. I remember holding my breath as the accompanying soldier strained, intermittently, to control the rearing horse that had no rider. I shall always remember that is was a long, dismal weekend.
I heard many times afterwards, although not in recent years, people say that life was never the same afterwards, and that America lost her innocence with President Kennedy’s death. I’m not so sure about that innocence part. That we were seared by this experience is undeniable. But for American children, the seeds for loss of innocence had already been sown by enforcement of the 1962 Supreme Court decision to ban prayer in public schools.
The prayer ban began a new era in our country that continues to this day. It is the era of schools not teaching children to police themselves; it is the era of legislating immorality; the era of stepping up the pace in transforming the brave new world of our pilgrim forefathers from a Christian to a secular nation. As the old guard of WWII days continues to fade away, it is for us to conjecture: What comes next? And where do we go from here?
My memories of the above on the day John Kennedy was killed was written two decades ago. I probably would have written pretty much the same if left until today. That’s how graphic the entire three day weekend was to me and I’m sure, was to many, many others, as well.
Vocabulary words for your children are high lighted but not listed below as in previous posts. Have the child or children look up the words before reading the above. To keep tedium at bay and to not dispel the importance of developing respect for the dictionary, let several take turns finding and informing others around the table of what the words mean and how they are pronounced. Include yourself in taking turns if you have just one child.
Don’t let yourself feel children can be too young to develop the dictionary habit. Even if they are not yet reading, they can still absorb the importance of knowing the meaning of words, and they will learn from the experience. Check to see if there are any words not highlighted that they did not know.
The poem for this post is Walt Whitman’s, “Oh, Captain! My Captain! This poem is about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. I don’t know about today, but the poem is found in high school literature books for many decades after the Civil War. I can remember my high school English teacher assigning my class to memorize one of the three verses to recite for the next day’s assignment. I chose the first verse and still remember reciting it for my teachers and classmates. It is a good poem to recite to self or others.
Explain to the children that the use of “ship” refers to America, and “the fearful trip” refers to the Civil War. Walt Whitman lived in Washington, D. C., during the Civil War, and volunteered his service as a nurse in hospitals for wounded soldiers.
Suggestions: encourage your children to learn more about Whitman – one of America’s finest poets – and his poem, for discussion at the dinner table.
O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN!
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up — for you the flag is flung — for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’s wreaths — for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip the victor ship, comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful read,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
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