The most unforgettable day of my young life began as a typical autumn day just before Thanksgiving 1963. During my freshman year in a new high school, I learned that the unimaginable had happened: President John F. Kennedy, he of the photograph hanging on the kitchen wall of my parents’ home in Tonawanda, had been assassinated. How could this have happened? It couldn’t be true! But it was.
One would think that the passing of 50 years might serve as a time cushion to obscure the emotional pain suffered by our collective consciousness. Every Nov. 22, I am a traveler to the space and time of 1963, as real as ever, because this was no “duck and cover drill”—this was the real thing.
Ninth grade is, in itself, a transitional time in one’s life. Here we were, frozen to the seats of our high school auditorium, a group of impressionable teen girls, on what was supposed to be our Friday afternoon chorus class. There was no comfort in the silence of knowing that the president had just been shot, and we were not permitted to leave. The chorus teacher fumbled for the right words, saying that, “We will never forget where we were when this happened.” The teacher made us stay there for several hours until 3 p.m., when we were dismissed. Many years passed before I was able to forgive him, for he was the one who had held us “captive” due to these tragic circumstances.
As we left the auditorium, we could hear the voice of our principal scratching weakly over the intercom, “President Kennedy is dead. He was shot in Dallas early this afternoon.” My head and brain were throbbing. I did not want to cry in front of everybody.
That morning’s discussion in homeroom about who had bought tickets for the school play or who had sold the most chocolate bars for the fundraiser seemed meaningless and hollow. I cannot recall the school play from 1963, or if there ever was one that year. We rode the school bus home and chattered about the terrible news, too shocked to stop talking. Life would never be the same. I got off the bus and walked through the front door of my home, now free to cry unashamed tears and embrace my fears. We would not return to school for a week.
I thought of happier times, in sixth grade, when JFK was elected. Our teacher, a Felician nun, danced into our classroom, a “Kennedy for President” Styrofoam hat in hand. In order to watch the inauguration, the nuns stacked two desks, put the TV on top, and banged on it to straighten out the picture. We would also see John Glenn launched into space, through the magic of TV.
It seemed that the magic had faded, as our family sat glued to the TV, helpless witnesses to history: Lee Harvey Oswald’s capture, the rifle, then his shooting, the arrest of his assassin Jack Ruby, Kennedy’s funeral procession, his casket borne in a carriage by an unruly horse, the heads of state marching with the first lady, she all in black, a black veil masking her tears, funeral drums beating like pounding heartbeats. When old videos are shown commemorating this occasion, and I hear the drumbeat, my heart begins to pound again like it just happened.
Because these 50 years have passed, we do need to acknowledge this sad and significant anniversary. But I prefer that we remember the 1960s through the joy of a nun dancing for the new president, who brought us the optimism of a bright future and modern world that we looked forward to so very much.
Diane M. Waterman has taught English and history as a home/hospital instructor, currently with Erie 1 BOCES, since the 1990s.