In the fall of 1963, Mrs. Blough enters our world to fuss and fret over every sign of life in her fifth grade classroom. As a teacher she is predisposed to nervousness, which makes you wonder just why she would choose a profession that involves managing roomfuls of spirited grade-schoolers. Here’s something else I can tell you about Mrs. Blough. She is the only teacher I ever saw cry in the classroom. It happened one Friday afternoon in late November. In those days most of the school children would walk home for lunch. For my siblings and I this usually meant a noon hour eating tomato soup and ham and cheese sandwiches on TV trays, watching “Bozo’s Circus” on Chicago television.
That Friday toward the end of the lunch hour our show was interrupted by a news bulletin that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. When the news came on, Mom rushed in from the kitchen to watch the first reports of the events in Dallas. It was near the end of the lunch hour when we were just about to return to school. On the short walk back to school we didn’t know that Kennedy had died.
Even in cold weather the students always lined up outside briefly before returning to their classrooms. It was there that my sister and I learned from our classmates the fast-spreading news that the President was dead. It was hard to grasp the significance of this news. Some boys were joking about something or other, jostling each other in line, and Mrs. Blough looking upset reprimanded them abruptly to quiet down. It wasn’t until we were in our seats that Mrs. Blough stepped in front of the class to inform us that President Kennedy had died. Our teacher began to cry openly now, which was almost as startling as the news from Dallas. It only lasted a moment before she composed herself, asking us to read silently for a while from our workbooks.
The nervous, fitful energy in the air made it hard to concentrate. What was going to happen next? Finally, after about 15 minutes another teacher entered the room and whispered something in Mrs. Blough’s ear. Our teacher nodded somberly and then stood up and walked to the front of her desk. “Children, Principal Pederson has decided that school will end early today,” she announced. “I hope you can all go home and say a prayer for President Kennedy and his family.”
It was my younger sister Diane’s ninth birthday, but there would be no party today. I met my sister outside and together we walked the short distance home. The television news was on when we entered the house and Mom told us to change our clothes and go outside with our little brothers and play until dinner was ready. My two younger brothers were their usual rambunctious selves, at ages seven and four a little too young to grasp the full meaning of the moment. We were outside only a few minutes when to our surprise Dad’s car pulled in the driveway. He was home early, too. Before entering the house, Dad walked over to where his children played on the back lawn. He looked serious and in a tone that reminded me of the way our family doctor spoke asked us how we all were. He squeezed brother Danny’s shoulder and said he would call us in for dinner before disappearing inside. Instead we all decided to follow him inside and soon the whole family was glued to the television news, which was reporting that a man had been arrested for the shooting. Dad wondered out loud if the Russians might be involved in Kennedy’s murder.
Why would someone want to shoot the President? The question puzzled me. With all the existential brainpower my 10-year-old mind could muster, I found myself pondering the question of why people hurt each other? It struck me as a horrible, inscrutable mystery and one in which the various explanations offered by the adult world seemed ultimately unsatisfying. It was a question that over the years would only harden in me, dissatisfied as I was by most of the answers offered.
As the somber spectacle of the President’s death gripped the nation, I suspect the adult world I had been so eager to join began then to lose some of its luster. But being a child, there was little to do except observe the strange, tragic events of those days. On Sunday afternoon I was outside on our front lawn when a neighborhood kid came charging out of his house, shouting that Kennedy’s accused killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, had just been shot on national TV. I ran home and Dad told me he had seen the whole thing, describing the moment when the yet unidentified killer rushed forward to shoot Oswald at close range.
For the state funeral the next day President Johnson declared a national day of mourning, which for the children meant no school. As our family watched the somber event on television, a palpable sadness hung in the chill November air. It was as if winter had announced its permanent arrival, but without any of the season’s beauty or joy. There was only the cold and the barren, leafless trees. And a day I wanted to end.
I returned to school the next morning, almost relieved to be back in the tedium of the classroom. As we waited for class to begin, a classmate leaned over and asked if I had thought about the fact that if the assassination had taken place on a Monday instead of a Friday, we might have gotten three days off school instead of just one. It was a dreadful observation and I wished he hadn’t said it. But we were ten years old and both of us laughed a little. In class Mrs. Blough’s voice was tender and kind that day, as if she were grateful for our presence in some new way. Strangely, I was grateful for her, too, in a way unfamiliar to me. Life, apparently, would go on.
In February some of us got excited about the arrival of The Beatles in America. With spring our restless thoughts begin to turn toward the impending miracle of Summer Vacation. The air in our second floor classroom turns warm and the children are naturally inclined to fan themselves with their hands or notebooks. This bothers our sensitive teacher. She tries to convince us that by moving our arms to fan ourselves we are only expending more energy, thus making ourselves even warmer. Of course, no one really believes her. She wants us all to sit quietly, but we are bursting to break free from this place.
Suffering, we sweat out those final, restless days of the school year, our minds hoisted out of the classroom’s dreary monotony by whimsical dreams of the summer to come and the occasional faint breeze through the open windows.