Thursday, November 21, 2013
Where I was When I Heard the News that JFK had been shothot
On November 22, 1963, I was attending first grade in St. Mary Magdalen School, a fairly new parish school serving Catholic families in the first ring of postwar suburban migration out of Eastern cities. The parish at that time didn't have a stand-alone church; rather, the school and church shared the same 2 story brick building; the church occupied half the first floor, and about 14 classrooms filled the rest. But even though the building was just a few years old, the baby boom had swelled enrollment past the number that could fit in that building, and so my first grade class of 41 six-year olds was lodged in a portion of the basement of the adjacent convent where the Benedictine nuns who taught in the school lived. The underground location was touted as an advantage when we practiced atomic bomb drills. The classroom was so makeshift that the desk of our teacher, Sister Jean d'Arc, was at the foot of the stairs that led to the ground floor of the convent.
Even for a nun in those days of Latin mass and Baltimore catechism (both of which I remember), keeping order among 41 six-year-olds was a challenge, so some of the mothers -- including mine -- pitched in to settle students in at the start of the day and help out at lunchtime.
Sometime after lunch that afternoon, the nuns' housekeeper rushed halfway down the stairs to our classroom, and told Sister Jean d'Arc -- loud enough that the whole class could hear it -- that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. Fifty years on, I still remember seeing her crouching down on those stairs delivering the news. Sister Jean d'Arc was completely stunned. She and the housekeeper must have decided that the news had to be conveyed to the rest of the school community in the main building, but neither of them thought to pick up the phone and dial the principal's office. I suppose that can be attributed to the shock of the moment, especially since it was a Catholic school and JFK was, of course, the first Catholic President, and thus revered in so many Catholic communities. They decided that, while the housekeeper would go back to monitoring the news, Sister would keep order in the class of 41 six-year-olds, many of whom were picking up on the adults' reactions and were themselves becoming agitated, and she would dispatch one of the first-graders to go over to the main building and deliver the news.
I stood out a little from the 40 others in that class. I had begun reading around the age of 3 and entered first grade reading at a fourth-grade level. I was very interested in current events: my parents would say that, when I was three years old, I was asked by a relative what my favorite TV show was, and I answered guilelessly, "The CBS Evening News with Howard K. Smith." (I suspect that only happened once because it probably elicited a good laugh which would have puzzled me and caused me not to repeat that answer.)
I was also an extremely quiet and obedient boy. My mother had told me to obey nuns and never to talk in school, and I obeyed her to the letter, to the point where I thought it was wrong even to talk during recess, and thus I didn't, making recess very boring for a few weeks until someone brought this to my mother's attention and she clarified her instructions, and I became a little more socially normal.
With this resume, however, I was, in Sister Jean d'Arc's mind at that moment, the perfect candidate to bear the news that the President had been shot to the rest of the school. I don't recall the details of my conversation with her, but in a few minutes, I was walking across the parking lot, which doubled as our playground, to the back door of the school. I remember that moment vividly because it was the first time I had ever been on the school grounds when they weren't bustling for recess, morning drop-off or afternoon pick-up. The contrast to what I had always experienced out there made a lasting impression on me. Everything was so quiet and peaceful. The sky, I still see in my mind's eye, was clear and blue.
I entered the main school by the back door and to my right, behind a makeshift accordion partition that looked, from my six-year old vantage point, to be about 12 feet tall, was the other first-grade class, presided over by Sister Trinitas. I knocked on the partition and she came over, slid it back enough to stick her head out, and I told her what I had been asked to relay: "Sister Trinitas, Sister Jean d'Arc told me to come over and tell you it was announced on the radio that President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas, and we should pray for him." I don't remember her reaction in detail except that she was gracious and thanked me. Then I went across the hall to the second grade classroom where my cousin Jean Marie was assigned, and told the same thing to her teacher Sister Anthony.
Then I went upstairs to the rest of the classrooms, which were united by a single long hall that ran east to west. I started at the east end because that was where the stairs let me out. I did not know the teachers in those rooms by name, but they had little signs outside of the room with the room number and the teacher's name on them, so I read the teacher's name, knocked on the door, and when she came to the door and opened it, I repeated my message: "Sister ____, Sister Jean d'Arc told me to come over and tell you that it was announced on the radio that President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas, and we should pray for him." Their reactions were, uniformly, one of shock. Then they would say something to me, close the door and I would go on to the next classroom and repeat the message to another shocked teacher. But I had watched the evening news often enough that I knew the men who reported bad news did so calmly without betraying much emotion and, as best I remember, that is how I conducted myself.
By the time I reached the upper grades at the west end of the hall, someone had already reached them with the message. I learned this when the teacher in one of those grades opened the door at my knock and snapped at me when I began to deliver the news, "Yes, we already know and we are praying for him! Go back to your classroom!." Being trained to obey the nuns, I did what she said. As I walked back to the convent basement, the sky was still clear and blue and the playground was still quiet and calm. I went back to my classroom and waited with my classmates for my mother to come and pick me up and take me home.
Like every other family in America that had a television set then, my family spent the next four days glued to it, watching people file past his casket as he lay in state, until on the fourth day he was buried. It was a memorable event, obviously, for all Americans, but devout Catholics like my family felt a particular grief in the loss of a man with whom they identified through their religion. I still remember coming in to the room where our TV set was, late in the afternoon over the weekend, when light had all disappeared outside, and the (black-and-white) TV was the only light in the room. No one could move away, even to turn on the lights in the room as it grew dark.
Throughout my life, I have been regarded as someone who does not get perturbed in times of stress (which thankfully have been few and far between). I wonder sometimes if that state of mind has its roots in that day, when I was called on to deliver the news just like those very serious men on the evening news I watched on television.
But, years later, in 1988, when the 25th anniversary of the assassination was being commemorated, I watched a documentary about it, at night in my basement. Near the end, they were showing a clip from one of the home movies taken of the motorcade that afternoon in Dallas. JFK was looking right at the camera, smiling and waving as the limousine passed by, looking so relaxed and fully enjoying the moment, and you know as you see him smiling and waving that he had less than a minute left to live and no idea of the fate that awaited him, and his family, and his country, when the limousine would take that excruciatingly slow hairpin turn at the Texas School Book Depository, and he was smiling and waving in slow motion, and I could only think about how much life disappeared in that next minute, and I cried.