A School Day I’ll Never Forget

by on September 4, 2019 · 2 comments

in From the Soul

By Ernie McCray

Friday, November 22, 1963.

I woke up that morning as I did every morning, cursing my alarm clock for waking me.

Getting that off my chest I got my day underway primping and talking to that dude in the mirror about what he and I might do that day to keep about 40 sixth graders at Oliver Hazard Perry Elementary excited and challenged and eager to come back for more the next day.

So when I made my merry way to school in my raggedy 49 ford (all I could afford at the time with the paltry pay a second year teacher raked in) I was probably humming and singing the tunes of the day: “Our day will come,” adding my bass; “You’ve really got a hold on me,” thinking of love with a smile on my face; “Walking the dog” for a change of pace…

That was literally how I “rolled” on the mornings of a school day.

I don’t, however, recollect anything about how my students and I began our day, but I do remember us returning from morning recess, pretty much our usual selves, although maybe a little less smiley and bubbly than normally based on some disturbing news we had heard right before they had gone out to play.

But we entered the room somewhat as we did ordinarily, chattering about this and that, games won or loss or tied, who got chastised for not playing right. Probably a little hip shaking by one or two girls to a Beatles song as that was an every day sight.

What we heard, though, was still on our minds and I turned the radio on as we took our seats, and in the next beat, we heard a newscaster say: “President John Fitzgerald Kennedy is dead!”

“Shot to death in Dallas with his wife, Jackie, at his side.”

“What did he say?” was written on all our faces. In caps. And suddenly everything that had happened in our lives, before that moment, was now nullified, completely set aside, leaving us teary-eyed and wide-eyed, sucker punched beyond belief, literally overwhelmed by a momentary crippling grief.

It was a form of sadness I didn’t know I possessed and then the questions in our tormented minds bounced off the walls of the room like echoes in a hollow building: “How? Why? Who? What are we going to do?”

And guess who didn’t have any answers? Me. That’s who.

So I looked into their eyes for guidance and I sensed that what they needed was a starting point to share how they were feeling, what they were thinking.

So I told them what was going on in me, how Jack Kennedy, to me, was not the fairy tale mythical Camelot bigger than life persona he was said to be – but a man, as far as presidents go, who inspired me more (although he wasn’t yet where I wanted him to be on a number things) than any other president had up to that point in my twenty-five years of living. He was the first president I ever cast a vote for.

And then my students chimed in letting their emotions out into the room like flood waters rushing over an incapacitated levee, exposing so many expressions of love.

Some loved him because he was handsome; some because he seemed real, a man like some of their dads who liked to play touch football with his family; some because he was an authentic war hero who saved the lives of members of his crew after the sinking of his PT boat in World War II, a natural reason for them to love him with so many of their fathers serving in the navy, some of them in Vietnam, as our school was located in a part of San Diego called Bay View Naval Housing.

One of my students said “I didn’t care that much about him but I didn’t really want him to die.”

And he cried, perhaps, harder than any of us because when we first got the news that the president had been shot, on our way out to recess, he had blurted out, trying to be funny and smart: “I hope he dies!”

I saw a student learn an important lesson right before my eyes and I came to realize on that day, as we opened our hearts to each other, that, in a classroom, a range of political beliefs and thoughts are in play.

But there was beauty in the tragedy as we began setting a tone for the rest of the school year, sketching and painting and writing wonderful poetry and prose from deep down in our souls – to ease our pain and misery and maintain our equilibrium as the year proceeded.

Oh, needless to say, the day JFK died was an excruciatingly mournful day that’s memorable in many ways.

It was a day that gave me deep insights, particularly, in how to engage students meaningfully and become kind of as one with them, and learning alongside them.

I had learned things that pursuing my bachelors and masters degree hadn’t prepared me for to any degree; things that were in no courses of studies given to me; things that my students and I had to work out for ourselves diligently.

I don’t know where I was on a scale of good to bad teaching when school began that day but I know I was better at my craft, by far, when I drove my raggedy 49 ford home at the end of the day.

For that alone, if for no other reason, I will never forget that day.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Avatar Thomas Gayton September 12, 2019 at 2:08 pm

i too will never forget that day. When i went to my English class at the UW i was told class was cancelled because Kennedy was assassinated

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Avatar Debbie Smith November 3, 2019 at 1:35 am

I was a fourth-grade student at Oliver Hazard Perry Elementary School on that fateful day. Miss Hansen, became Mrs. Montgomery when she married later that school year, was my teacher. I was a kindergarten coach during the lunch hour. After lunch, another coach and I returned to our classroom, but it was completely empty. A teacher directed us to another classroom, where everyone was glued to a radio. Then we heard the announcement, “President John Fitzgerald Kennedy is dead.” A lot of us kids started to cry. Many of the teachers lost their composure for a few moments. The uncertainty of what would happen next was palpable.
My dad was aboard an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam at the time. I knew the news of the president’s assassination could possibly extend his tour of duty. Being a military brat, I knew all leave would be cancelled and the bases would be on high alert (thoughts unique to a military brat).
The next few days were spent in front of the television watching history unfold. I remember asking my mom, “Why would someone kill our president?” She was at a loss too.

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