"The Auditorium. Now."
No one told us why. Our small bones had been drilled through with what to do in the event of earthquake or nuclear attack. We knew to roll under our desks and shield our heads, any time the teacher calmly interjected the word "Drop" into a lesson on arithmetic or geography. But not this. This was something no one had prepared for. This was something that could not happen.
We weren't told that the world was about to end.
We'd only known that world for a few years. When John Kennedy became president, a window had opened onto another America. We breathed some kind of new air.
This was not the America of the '50s, lock-stepped, lock-jawed, fanatically trying to keep an old order from dying.
This was an America that cannot even be imagined anymore. Our teachers at Carpenter Ave. Elementary didn't yet know it themselves, but a shared tide of optimism and possibility would end within the hour, never quite to return, gone along with a surging, uncustomary, open-hearted love of country, a patriotism that had to do with service and romance and healing and sensuality and humor and common hopes. And a belief in the future that bordered on madness.
A generation of children stopped being children that day. We became something else. Orphans, of a sort. Even before we filed out of the auditorium with the creaky wooden chairs, our eyes on the checkerboard linoleum floor, that future which had gleamed so secure and upwardly-mobile, had slipped out and gone, taking with it our trust in the present and our belief in what our elders had told us would always be true.
But we didn't really know any of that, not yet. On that Friday morning, that 22nd of November, we hadn't even been told why the school was being seated in the auditorium, class by class, row by row.
Not a word. No one had to tell us to be quiet. We were as paralytically silent and well behaved as only the most deeply terrified of children can manage.
All we saw were the teachers' faces, the color draining from them minute by minute, as we watched them plug in the school television and adjust the antenna. "This is Walter Cronkite in our newsroom. There has been an attempt, as perhaps you know now, on the life of President Kennedy ... condition is as yet unknown ..."
To this day, visiting family and friends in LA, whenever I take the short cut past Carpenter Ave. Elementary, what I see is what, for me, remains the site of the Kennedy assassination: The Auditorium. Now.
A friend, my classmate from kindergarten through high school, e-mailed a number of us this week. He'd sent his own daughter to Carpenter. He recalled her first Christmas program:
"It hit me the second I walked into the auditorium," my friend wrote. "I could see the B & W TV up high on a stand that they placed in front of the stage … Walter Cronkite was reporting … we restlessly waited until our mothers picked us up."
There were lessons we missed out on, that school day cut short. We'd have to learn them on our own: No crime is inconceivable. Worlds end all the time. They can end anywhere, Dealey Plaza in Dallas, the central square of Tel Aviv, the World Trade Center.
And there was one more lesson we learned over time: Once opened, a window to a better world can't be completely shut. Unimaginable acts can bring people, especially the young, to see more clearly, to imagine anew, to rebuild their world into a better one, if only in part. To place their faith in kindness over killing.
The ride home that began that school day would take many of us in directions we might never otherwise have gone. The fraying braid of cause and effect, of Vietnam and struggles for equality, has been largely lost over the years. For some of us, we know, that ride home ended overseas. For many of us, it goes on, in one form or other, to this day.
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