I was in the third grade at a howling anachronism.
From for three years, I attended a select seminary for young ladies. Outside the school, it might be the early sixties. But, once you passed those pillared portals, it was 1910. We were graded on posture and voice placement. (I don’t know what voice placement is either, but I wasn’t very good at it.) I finished third grade knowing half the multiplication table, since the teacher thought our girlish brains couldn’t manage the whole thing at once.
Instead, we did a unit on art history.
We were being prepared for a world that was rapidly disappearing.
It was expected that we would graduate from the school, in long white gowns, that would be useful for garden parties, tea dances and sorority functions.
Some of us would go to college, others would attend a finishing school.
The Protestant girls would make their debuts at the Cinderella Ball. The Catholic Girls would be presented to the bishop at the Medallion Ball. The Jewish girls, and Anna Louise, who was Greek, wouldn’t have debutante balls. But they would be introduced to the right people, in order to meet the right men.
A few of us might become teachers or devote ourselves to charity work. But it was assumed that most of us would marry and spend our days giving instructions to our maids, hosting luncheons, dinners and cocktail parties for our husband's friends and clients. Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that the school promoted social graces over academic achievement.
We would stick to our own kind, of course: Protestants with protestants, Jews with Jews, Catholics with Catholics. We might see each other, in passing, at a symphony gala or a political event. But we would spend most of our time with people like ourselves. Living in restricted neighborhoods, socializing in restricted clubs.
The school let out early on Fridays. That November afternoon, we were outside, at the Morewood Avenue entrance, enjoying the sunshine.
I had the weekend to look forward to. Then I was going to have an epic pig out.
Monday was my sister’s birthday, a fun dinner followed by cake. I would have Tuesday to digest it, then, on Wednesday, we would have Thanksgiving dinner at grandma and grandaddy’s, with turkey, stuffing, grandma’s corn pudding and pumpkin pie.
Thanksgiving would be early, because Thursday was Dad’s birthday, which meant roast beef and chocolate cake.
That would leave Friday to digest everything and enjoy leftovers, then, on Saturday, we would have my sister’s birthday party with hotdogs, soda, cake, candy and ice cream.
By Sunday I would not be feeling so well. But I could live with that.
I don’t know what I was anticipating then, but it wasn’t what happened.
The carpool lady pulled up, in her very large blue sedan. She got out, went up to her daughter and asked, “Guess What?”
Her daughter answered, “What?”
“The president’s been shot.” The carpool mom announced.
I thought it was some kind of family in joke.
It was November 22, 1963, and, like everyone else who was alive then, I can remember where I was, and what was said, the day the president was shot.
The car radio was on, all the way home, we listened to the news. The carpool lady assured us he’d recover. “He’s young. He’s strong.” (We didn’t know about his assorted ailments back then.)
My sister and I rushed into the house and told our mother what had happened. Together, we watched the news on television.
No one seemed to know what had happened. There were al kinds of speculations, and questions.
Then we were told two priests had gone to the hospital in Dallas, to give President Kennedy the last rites. Mom told us what those were.
The charismatic young president was dead.
I tried to understand.
My father began my history lessons when I was four. I knew presidents had been assassinated, back in the days when men had beards and women wore long skirts. There was a picture, in my kids’ history book, of John Wilkes Booth shooting Abraham Lincoln.
I liked that book. I could flip pages and go from Romans in togas, to knights in armor, to pioneers crossing the prairie, to Modern Times, where housewives cooked in electric kitchens, scientists looked at bubbling test tubes, and rocket ships soared through the stars.
In Modern Times, presidents weren’t supposed to be assassinated.
But that had happened.
Mom went down to cook supper in her electric kitchen.
We watched the news. They had one story to cover. They told it over and over again, with small variations, as tidbits of information came their way.
Lyndon Johnson was sworn in on board Airforce One. For three days, I thought he was our nation’s first Black president. (Except, in those days, we said Negro.) I’d seen him taking the oath of office, when I was in kindergarten. Thurgood Marshall held the Bible. I was five. I couldn’t tell who was who. I thought it was very nice that we would have a Black president. I didn’t know I was going to have to wait another forty plus years before that happened.
By Sunday, when we went to our very snobby Presbyterian church, to pray for the country, we knew that President Kennedy had been killed by a short, skinny guy named Lee Harvey Oswald.
Then, Lee Harvey Oswald was killed by a man named Jack Ruby.
It was like something in the television westerns we watched all the time. The ones President Kennedy had complained about.
On Monday, Grandma and Grandaddy came to our house, to watch the president’s funeral on our color television, and celebrate my sister’s seventh birthday.
You’ve seen the photographs; Jaqueline in her black veil, John junior saluting his father’s casket, the riderless horse with the boots backwards, “Eternal Father Strong To Save”, because Kennedy had served in the Navy.
Then the world went back to normal, sort of.
We had Thanksgiving on Wednesday, Dad’s birthday on Thursday and my sister’s party on Saturday as planned.
On Sunday, I needed Milk of Magnesia, as planned.
But the world was changing.
Amy Snyder’s Jaqueline Kennedy doll, dressed in a shocking pink evening gown, was to be carefully preserved, since they wouldn’t be making them anymore, and it would be worth a lot to some collector.
Girls in my class speculated as to whether Lyndon Johnson would be shot too. Though we weren’t supposed to discuss such unpleasant things, at our select seminary.
Kennedy’s profile replaced Benjamin Franklin’s on the half dollar, which meant half dollars became scarce, as people hoarded them.
That summer, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. It was published, in it’s entirety, in “Highlights For Children”, as was a poem by a six year old girl, praising the courage of the Kennedy family at John’s funeral.
The world I had been trained to live in, in that select seminary, was evaporating around me.
In the years that followed, Blacks, women, Gays, Hispanics, Native Americans, Jews, would tell the world, “We matter too.”
The world I knew, on that November afternoon, was safe, in a way. It was also small, narrow, and horribly confining.
John Kennedy was one of those who led us out of the age of restricted neighborhoods, quotas and genteel segregation.
He died on that November afternoon. But his dreams continued. His dreams continue.