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

1 Comment

Filed under Community, Compassion, Hope, Memories, Politics, This Moment, Time, Writers

One Response to Dallas

  1. Alida,
    This might be the best thing I’ve read on the anniver­sary of Pres­i­dent Kennedy’s assas­si­na­tion. Thank you for craft­ing these words and paint­ing the pic­ture of your youth, taken away so quickly.

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