Timothy Kelley, Age 64
Every American over 60 has his or her story of November 22, 1963. Mine includes a coincidence.
I was a freshman at Evanston High School in Evanston, Illinois, still getting used to going to school in a building that felt like a medium-sized city. But it was Friday, and next week would bring Thanksgiving. In French class that morning, Miss Vettes had played a record of the popular French song “Dominique” by the Singing Nun, and it was running through my head.
I guess you could say I trusted the adult world a little more than it deserved. At lunch in the cafeteria, when kids said the President had been shot in the back, I was sure it was mere adolescent mischief. I wasn’t gullible enough to believe such obvious nonsense.
Walking to seventh period study hall, I overheard more serious talk – and now the wound was in the head. I was unfazed. At my locker I said to someone: “Wouldn’t it be weird to see how the rumor would spread through a high school if something like this really did happen?”
At 1:17 p.m., a few minutes into the period, the study hall supervisor called for quiet. “A few of you have asked me if the rumor about the President is true,” he said. “Well, it is. He was shot in the head in Texas.”
I was stunned. Picturing the huge black headlines that announced Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, I scribbled random notes on the back of a French assignment sheet. Because I’d heard “Texas,” my notes bitterly blamed the South.
The enormous room’s three overhead TV sets were not turned on.
Eighth period was English – and this was All School Composition Day, when each English class in the school was to write an in-class theme. Kids were talking about the rumor that Lyndon Johnson had just had a heart attack. But we settled down. No mere assassination could stop All School Composition Day.
Earlier we had each turned in three outlines on topics of our choosing, one of which we’d now be given back for use as the basis of our composition. Two of my topics-“Successful Northern Generals in the Civil War” and “Dinosaurs of the Cretaceous Period” – were simply categories, but the third called for a persuasive argument. It was “Why Kennedy Should Be Re-Elected.”
That was the one Miss Rea handed me now.
For several minutes, while my classmates scribbled, I sat staring at the page. Then Miss Rea came over and asked if, in view of the news, I’d like to write on another topic. She handed me “Successful Northern Generals,” and for several more minutes I stared at that.
Then I got up and walked to Miss Rea’s desk. “I’d like to write on the first topic after all,” I said.
I cranked out a hurried essay, writing as I’d have done that morning, when there was still a President Kennedy to re-elect. I lauded his “strong stand on the Cuban Crisis” and added: “Kennedy is pushing for a complete Civil Rights bill, making every sensible move toward total racial equality.”
Then, in red ink, I added a postscript. “Certain usages of the present tense should be mentally changed by the reader to be construed as the past,” I wrote, “because today John F. Kennedy was murdered. Now, in the modern Space Age, Free America has reached a climax – in sheer shamefulness.”
That was a bit lugubrious, but I forgive my 14-year-old self. Lord knows I didn’t make many smart moves as an early teen, but I’ve always been glad I chose to write on my original topic-and so was Miss Rea.
Still, the world became different to me on that Friday afternoon. And it’s been different ever since.
Much more on JFK and the anniversary, including a remembrance by CBS journalist Bob Schieffer, and a slideshow of Kennedy family life starting in the late 1950s.
Here’s a preview of the American Experience documentary on JFK that airs November 11 and 12 on most PBS stations.
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