The ninth grade at Herbert Hoover Junior High School in Long Beach, California began with a minor triumph. I was assigned Features Editor for the school newspaper, The Scotty Scroll—a name that complemented our Highlanders school theme. Advanced Journalism produced the paper. Although I had never taken a journalism class before, I convinced the teacher, Carolyn Muck, to admit me. She was my first teacher-mentor. I would have taken journalism from her through all periods of the day. She believed I might do something that mattered with words. Mrs. Muck was my confidante; I stopped by the classroom at the end of each day. She asked me about my life — what I hoped to do and achieve as an adult woman. I was both arrogant and immature enough to consider her an older friend.
I talked about my love of acting and the theatre and my drama classes on weekends. More than anything else, I wanted to be on the stage. She wanted me to consider the possibilities of being a playwright, not an actress. When I told her my high school schedule the following year would not include journalism, but drama instead, she was forlorn. With resignation she said writing left a person unless you kept it going. If I made this choice I would lose the possibility of becoming a writer — it would be buried and get lost in activities and pursuits that were, frankly, more engaging and not solitary. I did not take her advice. I engaged in acting and theatre with my whole being. But later, it was writing that came back to claim me and wouldn’t let go. I never found her again. I wanted to tell her she was the one who inspired me to be a writer – an essential part of my identity. And, I would have corrected her — it’s an even lonelier pursuit than she suggested in that 9th grade classroom.
Defining moments is an over-used phrase. But they happen in history and in personal lives. November 22, 1963 remains one for Americans and much of the world. (For a long time I didn’t know people who are not born by then, and now I know so many who were not.) On this the 50th anniversary of that loss, I have been thinking, like so many others, what I was doing and how it felt to be a girl then, and what changed in those moments and subsequent weeks and years.
I was sitting in a converted bungalow classroom at the back end of Hoover’s property. I was in homeroom. It was mid-day. Bungalows were presumably temporary rooms and were repurposed from World War II. Carole, a popular and socially important girl, with long blonde hair, styled in a spiral ponytail, announced to class she heard President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. Miss Cunningham, homeroom teacher and my English teacher, gave Carole a stern lecture. She was called her out for spreading frightening and untrue gossip. Carole was confident, assured, in charge, and beautiful. Nobody intimidated her not even this teacher.
Within a few moments of Miss Cunningham’s berating, the P.A. system went on; we were told to march, in assembly formation, to the front steps of the auditorium. In a few minutes, Mr. Whelan, the vice-principal, a redheaded Irishman, appeared and said: Our President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. There were screams and crying. Tough boys looked down at their shoes. School was dismissed. We should proceed immediately to our homes. He spoke directly, in short clear sentences, without first bracing us for the impact. His face was streaked with tears, and his eyes were swollen. He looked the way I felt. I wanted to hug him and tell him somehow we would all be fine. But I didn’t think that was true. I was sure we would never be fine again, not any of us.
Walking the few blocks back to the house I had two thoughts. Foremost in my mind was that our country was broken — finished. If a president could be killed in his own motorcade, then we were doomed. It was the end of the world. The other fear was my parents would not know yet. I would be the messenger. When I reached the house I couldn’t find them. They were standing silently in the backyard holding hands – both weeping. We stood together for a time, my father holding us close. He broke the silence, “They slaughtered our beautiful president.” The word slaughtered seemed fitting for what happened. My father was a WWII veteran and knew what it meant to be slaughtered – he had seen the ravages of battle.
It seemed unthinkable that one person could do this – so the pronoun they felt appropriate. It must be a plot; perhaps it was an invasive foreign plan to destroy us. My parents, who were never politically paranoid, became so that afternoon. They were not alone. What would happen next?
My world became grey, pointless, subdued. What could matter now? How could I go on at school or go forward with games and frivolity? Surely we would collapse and everyone and everything around us would fall apart. I couldn’t imagine it could ever be fixed. In the next days, the story became more absurd, another murder of the assassin – and then more chaos in thought and actions.
On the day we returned to school after the hiatus, I got a smack of reality-therapy. I walked home with a girl I had known for a long time. They were devout fundamentalist Christians and their lives revolved around their church and its activities. Her parents were important leaders in their congregation. She wanted to know why I was so sad. President Kennedy was killed, I said. She said, yes, but with luck, Republicans would be elected in the next term. That’s what her father told her. I peppered her with questions and accusations about how she could respond that way, hadn’t she seen the funeral, the children, the First Lady, the country in grief? In a matter-of-fact tone she said they were not allowed to watch the television coverage because what happened was God’s will. JFK was an evil force in our country. He was a Roman Catholic and therefore not a Christian. They played Gin Rummy late into the night of the 22nd — when holding a winning hand instead of shouting out Gin! — the family members shouted BIG D. I knew then hatred had many faces, and took many forms.
Mrs. Muck assigned me the feature about the President’s murder. I wanted to expose my former friend but knew that wouldn’t be published. More than that, I knew she wasn’t the only classmate who did not see JFK’s death as the tragedy we did. I became serious about my American history course. I wanted to learn more about politics and the way the government worked. Action was required, not just words. I believed I had heard enough words and they screamed in my head. I had read enough, and looked at too many photographs of what would become known as JFK’s Camelot. It was a time of disbelief. And a time when at last I knew there were no fairy tales, few happy endings. What became certain was that everything is unknowable and unpredictable — the future — my future — everything in our nation and in the world. Being a thirteen year old girl felt silly. I wanted to become an adult and do something that mattered. I wanted to make a difference. ©Alida Brill, 2013