On the same day newscasters were asking “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” I got a message from the past on Linked In: “Did you teach at B’water Elementary School 50 years ago?” It was from one of my students the first year I taught: Cecille.
In the week leading up to the anniversary of the Kennedy assassination I’d been thinking about that year. Feeling guilt ridden. It was the first year I taught. I’d been trained to teach high school history, but the only job I could find was working with fifth graders. I knew nothing about reading or math instruction. To make matters worse, I had a class of thirty-six ten-year-olds.
I sent the “bad boys” to the principal’s office. I didn’t know what to do for those who couldn’t read except plug them into phonics workbooks, again and again covering rules about short and long a’s, consonant blends. I doubt that they read any better on the last day of the year than they had on the first.
Thinking back on the events of November 22, 1962, I also was thinking, given what I now know about children’s need to talk about traumatic events, that I’d let my class down in the days following the assassination. I don’t recall discussing it with them.
My memory is that on that Friday afternoon, a few minutes before school was dismissed, our class Student Council representative returned to the room and said, “The President’s been shot.”
In my mind, it couldn’t be. “I doubt that,” I said. “Let’s not worry.” School let out a few minutes later and all the kids went home.
But Cecille wrote that she remembers that afternoon differently. She says that as one in the last group to board buses each day, she was still in the room when the janitor came by and told me, “The President has died.” Cecille says I cried and that for her my crying turned out to be an important lesson in compassion: how important people are, even if we don’t have personal connections to them.
Her memory is a reminder of how attuned children are to adults’ emotions. A father who’s angry at his boss, a mother upset over a marital quarrel, a teacher who cries over the death of the President. We must not assume that because they are young, children are oblivious to our feelings. As Cecille demonstrates, a child’s observation and the message she gleans from it can last a lifetime.