I think it's safe to say that all those capable of conscious thought on November 22nd, 1963 remember exactly where they were, and what they were doing when they learned that President Kennedy had been shot. I, like most of my generation, was in school. Some of us were in high school, some in college, some in kindergarten, and I was in Miss Marshall's 5th grade class.
Not long before that fateful day I'd turned in a highly regarded report on the state of Florida, and I'd been singled out by our art teacher as the object of praise for my version of a Van Gogh painting that the class had seen during a visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art. I was in the process of reading The Diary of Anne Frank, and had used the new Xerox machine at the public library to copy the cover of the book for the report that I ultimately planned to write. But the fact of the matter was that I had an assignment due long before I'd get to the end of Anne's tragic tale. In fact, a report on birds was due that very afternoon. I hadn't completed the assignment. I hadn't even started it. It was the first time in my good-girl, A-student life that I had not done my homework.
So I sat at my desk on that day with my eyes downcast, wondering how I would survive having my teacher and classmates discover that I was a major fuck-up. That was the scale of my failure in my mind at that moment, and I speculated just how deep my humiliation might be. A trip to the principal's office? A letter home to the parents? I had no experience in this realm of unfulfilled scholarly expectations, so I truly had no idea what would happen. But I feared that I might throw up in anticipation of whatever it might turn out to be- which might actually have been preferable to being recognized as such a radically imperfect being.
I remember closing my eyes for some reason, and then three bongs rang from the P.A. system followed by the voice of Miss Foss, our principal, instructing teachers and students to go immediately to the auditorium.
I managed to stay calm, but honestly wondered if I would be called to the auditorium stage and declared a shirker before the entire school. I expected humiliation, but not on such a sweeping scale. I mean, I knew I'd screwed up, but shit, I thought Miss Foss liked me.
Miss Marshall, mother-henned us into a double line, turned out the classroom lights as we exited, and guided us downstairs to the auditorium. At the top of the stairs she hesitated for just a second to speak with my former kindergarten teacher, Miss Brewer, and then put her hand to her mouth. I suddenly thought, "How does Miss Brewer know that I didn't do my homework?" Ah, what narcissism.
But I wasn't taken aside or singled out in any way as we continued to the auditorium where we sat our tidy behinds on the beige folding chairs that filled the room, and then waited for something to happen. Before long Miss Foss walked quietly to the middle of the stage and said, "Good afternoon, children. We've just learned that the President has been shot in Dallas, Texas. We've notified your parents, and will be sending you home as soon as you can gather your things from your classrooms."
I remember thinking instantly, "Dallas, Texas? Was he shot by a cowboy?" (Too many episodes of Roy Rogers, Death Valley Days, and Hopalong Cassiday?) But there was a general silence from the peanut gallery punctuated by a bit of sniffling from teachers who'd bunched in the doorways. Miss Marshall seemed pale, but with exemplary calm and kindness led us back to our room where we found our coats and mufflers in the cloakroom, grabbed our book wallets, and headed home.
As soon as we were outdoors, Cathy Hampel started to cry. I have to admit that I was impressed. I mean, I liked JFK. He was handsome, and Jackie was beautiful, and their kids were cute and all, but it's not like any of us knew him personally, so her ability to turn on the waterworks was impressive. But then Cathy had always been a tad dramatic, and I may have been distracted by the fact I had been spared life-altering ridicule and humiliation through a serendipitously horrific and world-altering tragedy. I felt horrible- and giddy with relief.
I managed to contain myself as Cathy, Arthur Vance, Gail Stavitsky, and I walked the block and a half to our homes. Gail and I, who lived just one house away from each other, said our final goodbyes, and I let myself in our back door. I hung my coat in the closet off the kitchen, and heard the sound of the TV coming from upstairs. I followed Walter Cronkite's voice into my parent's bedroom where my mom was sitting on the love seat to the right of the bed. She motioned for me to sit next to her, and put her arm around my shoulder as I plunked myself to her left. We both sat there, for I'm not sure how long, saying nothing and watching the flickering images of shock and sorrow on the red GE portable TV perched atop my dad's dresser across from us. Later, my brother and sister would join us, as would my dad, and the rest of the country formed similar circles around televisions in their homes. It was as if everyone just stopped that night. Everyone, I believed, but me.
Eventually my family moved downstairs where my mother started dinner and the rest of us planted ourselves in front of the big Motorola console in the living room. Doing my best not to draw attention to myself, which frankly would have taken a small bomb or a blood-gushing wound, I slipped the B volume of our World Book Encyclopedia from the shelves behind the wingchair to the left of the fireplace, and ever-so-subtly, began to make drawings of bird skeletons, diagrams of robin anatomy, and outline the construction of feathers. I worked my little guts out, finally snipping a picture of a chicken from a grocery store ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer then pasting it on the report's title page. What can I say? I threw myself into an orgy of expiation and relief right there on the living room floor with my dad sitting ashen behind me, and my mom crying as she made Sloppy Joes in our knotty-pine-paneled kitchen.
I turned in my report the next day and received an A+. Along with the grade, Miss Marshall wrote "Wonderful work, Julie!" and circled both in red pencil right next to the chicken pic. Did I deserve an A+ given the circumstances that produced it? Maybe not. But let me just say now, and for the record, I'm sorry, Jack. I really am...