November 21, 2013
by Dr. R. Scott
I remember it with such vividness. I was in first grade. The school building was old. Wooden floors. High ceilings. The hall echoed with voices and footsteps. The heavily-stained oak desks were perfectly aligned and bolted to the floor. (No collaborative learning in those days.) We sat in rows. We sat quietly. We listened to the teacher and learned.
My mother walked me to the bus stop each morning that fall. I wore dark bluejeans replete with orange stitching, and the pants were stiff, as if made of starched cardboard. I wore a white polo shirt for my first grade picture that year. I didn’t smile. I was serious, even as a first grader, earnest and serious. I was sitting toward the back of the classroom on November 22, a classroom ringed with dusty blackboards, and above the boards, art work illustrating numbers and letters. My first grade reading book featured “Dick and Jane.” (Oddly enough, the names of my dad and aunt.) The illustrations in the book were warm and familiar.
I remember sitting in Mrs. Cauble’s class, and then a terrible anguished scream rang out from the hallway. It was not a scream exactly, more like a high-pitched groan. I then heard the sound of a woman running down the hallway, her shoes making a frantic clacking sound against the wooden floors. I later figured out that the woman was the school’s secretary. I don’t remember her name, but she assisted the school principal, Mr. Spradley, who was rumored to have an electric paddle in his office for any student who dared to challenge his authority. A short time later Mrs. Cauble, sweet, old and now shaken, shared the news that the President of the United States of America, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, had been shot and killed.
The full impact of this news did not really sink in until I went home, because for the next few days I watched the black and white news coverage on the television with my mother. We were living in a small two-bedroom house on Standish Street, and I remember sitting on the living room floor and watching the procession of sadness — the horse-drawn casket, Mrs. Kennedy in her black dress, the two children, and the sober voice of Walter Cronkite’s as he offered commentary on the proceedings.
I remember feeling confused, upset and afraid. Of course the entire nation was shocked. I now realize that the death of President Kennedy was my first awareness of impermanence. The implacable reality that the universe shifts. I would learn that lesson again with Dr. King’s death. And Bobby Kennedy’s death. And then my grandfather dying. And then two friends killed in an automobile accident. And then a President resigning. And on and on goes the litany of life. Impermanence: You wake up and the world is one way. You go to bed and the world is different. November was such a sad day.
I was a small boy. It is a big memory. I’m still trying to understand that day in November fifty years ago.