Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fifty Years Ago

I was eleven years old, and I was at school. My classmates and I had just gotten settled at our desks for English class. But our teacher, Mrs. Nussbaum, was uncharacteristically distracted. She stood at the door, her back to the classroom, whispering intensely with another teacher. 

The bell rang, signaling the beginning of the period. Mrs. Nussbaum spun around and shouted, “Take out a piece of paper, now!” We all grabbed a sheet of loose leaf paper and slapped it on our desks. “Write a100-word essay on the importance of the presidency!” And she turned back to her hallway discussion.

I started writing. “1964. A president will be chosen...” Suddenly the classroom door slammed. We all looked up and watched our teacher walk to her desk. She sat down slowly, as though in pain. We waited, hardly breathing. Mrs. Nussbaum folded her hands on the desk and announced, “The president has been shot.”

We all gasped in unison. As she began to explain that we didn’t know too much about it yet, the public address system crackled to life. The school principal, Mr. DeGennaro, expressed his sorrow in informing us of “the assassination of President Kennedy today in Dallas, Texas.”

“So he’s dead, then,” Mrs. Nussbaum remarked in a dull voice, as if to herself. The principal asked for a moment of silence. As I mentally raced through a “Hail Mary,” I looked up at Mrs. Nussbaum. She was still sitting at her desk, head bent, eyes closed, hands folded now in prayer. Her lips were moving, and she was whispering strange words. As I strained to listen, I realized she was speaking Hebrew. My teacher was saying Kaddish for President Kennedy.

A silent minute passed. The PA system crackled again, and “The Star-Spangled Banner” began to play over the school’s loudspeakers. Mrs. Nussbaum jumped to her feet and slapped her right hand over her heart. As if connected by wires, the entire class immediately did the same. As we stood at attention during the national anthem, we could see the school’s American flag being lowered to half staff through our classroom windows.

When I rushed home that afternoon, it was surreal to find my father already there and in his “Saturday clothes.” Dad told me that he couldn’t concentrate at work after he heard the news and just came home. I sat with him throughout the evening and weekend, both of us glued to the grim black and white images that would fill television screens worldwide.

The entire country was wounded, grieving, staggering with sorrow. The assassination was all people could talk about for a long time. I was old enough to feel shocked and sad over President Kennedy’s assassination, but not old enough to grasp the countless implications of this dramatic turn of history.

It was the beginning of the end of innocence for our country. I remember so much of it. But my most vivid memory of November 22, 1963, is the image of Mrs. Nussbaum, deep in prayer for her dead president.