We all have them throughout our lives. Defining moments. Events which teach us life lessons, expose us to something as never before. Moments of joy, happiness, or sorrow and pain. Fifty years ago I was an eleven year old in Mrs. Gipe’s English class when my Dad opened the classroom door and said, “The Principal asked me to tell you the President’s been shot. He died. We’ve called for the buses to take the children home. I’ll let you know when they’re here.” You see, my Dad was the elementary school janitor. In the days before classroom phones and intercoms, he was often given the added job of spreading news from room to room. As I watched his face, I realized how heavy this particular news was for him. I also realized it was perhaps even more heavy a burden because this week marked the fourth anniversary of my brother Leon’s death in a car accident. Sadness already filled our house.
Mrs. Gipe, being an English teacher and loving poetry, took out a book and started reading “O Captain, My Captain” by Walt Whitman. As she read the poem about Abraham Lincoln’s death, her voice faltered now and again, but she never broke down in front of us kids. Other than her voice, the room was so quiet it was hard to believe there were about 30 eleven year olds sitting there. She never had time to finish reading the poem to us as my Dad opened the door a few minutes later to announce the arrival of the school buses.
As we filed out to the sidewalk, I saw my Mom on the corner waiting to cross the kids, who walked home, safely to the other side of the street. You see my Mom was the crossing guard. She always looked very professional and in charge in her police uniform but she always smiled as she greeted the kids. Today, her face looked sad. I knew she had looked that way all week, often standing in front of the piano in our living room just staring at my brother’s photos. And, although Thanksgiving was just a week away, there was a lull over our house hushing down any anticipation of the holiday season to come.
On the bus, Ginnie, a girl in my class broke down and started crying. There were others crying, too. But, I sat in the seat across from Ginnie and we lived near each other and played together and were in Girl Scouts together and had been in the same class since kindergarten. I knew her pretty well. So, it was she who I told it would be O.K. “But, what’s going to happen to us?” she wailed. I heard myself tell her, “Nothing. Everything’s going to be O.K.” I didn’t know if everything was really going to be O.K. But, when my brother was killed, people told me everything was going to be O.K. so I repeated it to Ginnie. Nothing seemed to be the same since his death but I still had a family, my Dad still worked at the school I attended and my Mom now stood on the school corner every morning and afternoon making sure kids crossed the street in safety. Our family still did most of the things we always did. There was just a piece missing. It wasn’t the same, but, it was O.K.
At the time I was too young to realize it, but Kennedy’s assassination intertwined with the experience of my brother’s death was a defining moment for me. As I look back fifty years, I recognize there were many kids on that school bus who had never experienced the death of anyone. They were afraid, confused, saddened. While the thought of the President being murdered was scary to me, I was one of the kids who was able to remain calm and offer comfort to my friends and classmates. I knew life would change but it would also go on. In that moment, a defining moment, I grew up just a little bit more.