Tuesday, November 22, 2005

R.I.P. John F. Kennedy

Dear Beloved Children,

There are moments in our lives that stand as milestones -- births and firsts, and deaths and lasts. Your first day at school, first kiss,
last day before moving on, the last time you see someone – those moments are burned into your memory. Someday when you see your firstborn's face the first time, the impact of what I'm telling you will settle on your soul, along with understanding.

The monumental historical "event" so far in your lives is September 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center towers went down, the Pentagon was hit, and other brave souls died in Pennsylvania. Remember how I urged you to write in your journals? For the rest of your lives, you will be asked where you were and what you were doing when that happened.

I was in first grade when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Mrs. Martha Markowitz was my teacher. How I loved her warmth and kindness! She had a comforting laugh that never mocked. She made me feel safe and "okay" even though I didn't fit in well with the other children.

It was naptime that Thursday. We had our heads dutifully down on our desks, pretending to be asleep. I found myself watching the undulating heat rise from the radiator, warping the scene outside the
classroom window. This was my usual naptime activity, imagining another world on the other side of this steam curtain.

Jennifer Drake was in my class also. She loved horses, even more than I did. We were both horse addicts, collecting sets of stallion, mare and foal families of Appaloosa, Pinto, Morgan, and whatever horse families the Breyer company produced. I used to go to her house to play, and I knew her father was an architect. They had a baby grand piano in a totally black and white room with bubblegum pink carpeting. We weren't allowed in that room, but I always sneaked a peek.

Jennifer was odd, like me, and didn't fit in well with the other children. Unlike me, she could make her eyes pop out of her head and
then put them back in. She also knew how to roll her eyes so only the whites showed (she had an older brother).

Back then, everyone knew everyone else's parents, or at least their mothers. People tended to stay in one house all their lives and you were stuck with whatever role you found yourself falling into at a young age. I was doomed to be the weird, smart girl with the odd parents.

Anyway, it was during naptime and Jennifer's mom burst into our classroom holding a red transistor radio. A transistor radio was about the size of the palm of your hand and a marvelous thing to have back then. She rushed in, and I noticed her hair wasn't neatly combed like it normally was. Her eyes were wilder than I'd ever seen, and I thought
offhandedly that maybe that's where Jennifer learned her cool eye tricks.

Mrs. Markowitz stood up as Mrs. Drake rushed towards her. I knew immediately something bad was wrong. "Jack's been shot," was all
Mrs. Drake said. "Jack's been shot." I remember Mrs. Markowitz began to cry, and so did Mrs. Drake and Jennifer. Two of my classmates' fathers had died already that year -- unusual, I know, but since it was the first time I'd been in school, it was 'normal' for my experience. I wondered why someone had shot Mr. Drake.

We were all sent home and school was cancelled for several days. Nothing good was on television; newscasters and solemn men with shaky, gravelly voices and the same picture of some people in a car over and over again. Mom wouldn't talk about it, and I wondered how important Jennifer's daddy must have been for us to get out of school because he was shot. I also wondered who shot him, and why.

Coincidentally, President Kennedy was also shot that day. He died. He had a daughter my age and a little son my brother's age. I felt sorry for them, and for Jennifer and her brother, and for my other classmates
who had lost their fathers.

It wasn't until we went back to school the following week that I learned who "Jack" was and found out that Mr. Drake was just fine. I still felt sorry for the President's children and my classmates who had lost their daddies. It turned out to be only the beginning of many children's daddies dying -- Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Medgar Evers, Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, all those Vietnam soldiers, those black men who were burned and tortured down south, and many more.

As bad as things may seem to you now, I remember thinking it was normal to get out of school because someone had died. I remember images on television of helicopters and men on stretchers, of dead bodies hanging in trees, or chained to trees, charred and tortured. I remember watching the evening news as police dogs attacked men and women and police hosed down crowds of blacks who were only trying to assert their rights. I remember college students protesting, being shot by fellow students in the National Guard at Kent State. I remember young men having to go to Vietnam when they weren't yet allowed to vote.

This was all normal to me, this was my childhood. My personal confusion wasn’t unusual in light of the country’s collective confusion.

What I figured out was freedom had a high price, a dear cost, and to ensure freedom one had to pay that price. I fly my flag proudly and speak my mind freely with respect and deference to all those children's daddies who gave their lives so that I retained that right. Some of
them gave their lives inadvertently, some with full knowledge. Kind of like the folks in the Trade Center towers, and over Pennsylvania.

Remember their children.


Marion said...

Mrs. Markowitz was one of the best grade school teachers ever. She helped save my sanity, as well as Ginger's. And she barely batted an eye the time Ginger's dad came bursting in (complete with long hair and wearing a large ankh around his neck--remember this was 1964 and Charleston had no "beatniks" but he was--he was a real character) demanding to speak with Mrs. Markowitz immediately. They went out in the hall but he was yelling pretty loud so it wasn't exactly private. Ginger, I'm sorry he couldn't get you a better deal in school. You deserved a whole lot better than you got. He sure did go to bat for you; I envied you that.

Jennifer Drake had the most beautiful long light-brown hair, slightly curly. I asked my mom why I couldn't grow my hair long like Jennifer's, too, and my mom said there was no way she wanted to take care of my hair if it were long. I wasn't allowed to grow it long until junior high, when it was sticking out sideways no matter how it was cut, and the stylist told my mom I'd have to grow it long in order to tame it down.

Every now and then, Mrs. Markowitz would miss a day of school and we'd have a substitute: Mrs. Graham. Remember her? Ancient as the hills, and as soon as the buzz of classroom whispers hit her well-preserved eardrums, she'd snap, "I hear tongues!" What was was the name of the kid who had to wear contact lenses--was that Howie? I can't remember--but he lost a contact one day when Mrs. Graham was subbing, and he and she were both down on their hands and knees looking for it on the wooden floor of the classroom. We were all ordered not to move a muscle until they found that lens. I was so fascinated by the sight of Mrs. Graham on all fours that I didn't mind not moving--the image is with me to this day.

marion said...

I remembered the name of the kid who had contact lenses in first grade--he was Barry (not Howie. I went to kindergarted with Howie at the Valley Day School in Charleston, but he went to a different grade school.)