The album in my mind still houses the photo of my Grade 5 classroom on the second floor of the convent where I went to primary school. That photograph has not bleached or frayed with time. There aren’t any cracks in it, either, and the colour is still vibrant. Why would the memory remain so vivid fifty years later?
For one thing, that classroom had a cloakroom at the front of the room, to the right of the teacher’s desk as she faced the class. Students fortunate enough to spend a year in that classroom had status. They could store their coats, boots, and other paraphernalia in an enclosed space with glass doors leading out to the classroom. Panels of windows opened up an entire wall of the cloackroom, and extended along the wall of the classroom. Daydreamers had an unobstructed view of the convent gardens and the parish church just across the road. As a result, that room mitigated the drudgery and tedium of Grade 5.
It was in that room, as well, that I decided to become a teacher. During the class study of the countries of South America and their capitals, I noticed that our textbook cited Rio de Janiero as the capital of Brazil. I knew that was false. National Geographic had featured an article on the new Brazilian capital, called Brasilia. “I’ll bring the magazine tomorrow,” I assured a skeptical teacher. So I did. I couldn’t wait to get to school, and during the Social Studies work period, I walked up to the teacher’s desk, magazine in hand. My teacher looked up, smiled, and glanced at the magazine. Then, she turned back to her reading of the National Enquirer. What? My teacher was more interested in gossip than in the new capital of Brazil? How could that happen? In my mind, a teacher was supposed to support curiosity and learning. I resolved to do better than that. When my turn came, I would affirm students who took the time to teach me things. I would welcome the Brasilias that came my way. Disillusioned, I returned to my desk. Something in me died that day.
I was at that desk right in the middle of the middle row of desks, aligned with the teacher’s desk and the clock above it on November 22, 1963, when the principal came on the intercom and announced that John F. Kennedy had been shot. Thanks to my father’s news addiction, I already knew a lot about Kennedy. My ten-year-old mind wondered how a politician, especially the president of a country, could be so young. Before Kennedy had been Eisenhower, and we in Canada had Diefenbaker and Pearson. What a revelation—politicians didn't have to be old. They could have beautiful wives, and small children running around the White House and peeking out from under their famous father’s desk. I had already read a few books on the Kennedys that had come through my parents’ book club. I felt I knew the family. When JFK’s death was announced, I felt I had lost a member of my family.
In shock, I endured the afternoon and the bus ride home. My parents already had the television turned on. I spent the weekend glued to it, engraving forever the images of Lyndon Johndon’s oath of office aboard Air Force 1, with Jackie Kennedy at this side, the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, the cortège along Pennsylvania Avenue, the riderless horse improperly shod, a veiled and sombre Jackie Kennedy holding her children’s hands, and, of course, John-John’s salute. My bereavement took an odd turn, and became an obsession with anything Kennedy. I read Death of a President, by William Manchester, Robert Kennedy and His Times by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., books on the family, William Garrison’s On the Trail of the Assassins (later adapted for the screen by Oliver Stone), even Steven King’s fictional 11/22/63. Anything about the Kennedys snared my attention..
When we first visited family in Dallas in 2008, I only had one reply to the question, “What do you want to do while you’re here?” See Dealey Plaza and the Book Depository Building. So we did. I felt that I was visiting a shrine, a sacred place, like the cathedral in the war cemetery in Verdun. Both times we were there, I stood on the X in the street marking the spot of the assassination, and strolled on the grassy knoll, trying to visualize the circumstances. Both times we visited the site, other people were milling about like me, as well, interacting with their own memories and images of that fateful today.
Whatever JFK’s personal weaknesses and transgressions, well-documented in the fifty years since his murder, I still associate with his memory a sense of possibility, that things others only dream of (as his brother Robert said later) could come to pass under his administration. That same aura of change and idealism surrounded Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, both killed in 1968. I remember watching RFK bleeding out on the floor of the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles before leaving for school on the morning of June 5, 1968. I walked, disconsolate, around the school yard during recess all that day, hoping against hope that he would survive, wondering how such horrors could happen. Robert Kennedy died the next day.
I felt the same sense of loss in 1978 at the death of Pope John Paul I. Once again, so much hope shattered. Two years ago, in August of 2011, as I was driving into Regina for a shopping trip, I heard that Jack Layton had passed away. The clerk at the framing counter at Michael’s was similarly subdued and preoccupied. What would Canada do without him? Who would have the charisma and the eloquence to speak up for the working class? I was compelled to sign the guest book and send a message of condolence. Once again, I felt a personal loss.
So this morning on “Q”, during his hommage to the JFK anniversary, as Jian Ghomeshi indicated that fewer and fewer people can answer the question, “Where were you when JFK was assassinated?“, including his entire production team, I thought, “Well, I can.” Like the filaments of the body’s lymph system, a political event that occurs when you’re ten years old can imprint on you. It can colour feelings and visceral reactions in analogous events throughout a lifetime. In my case, forever connected to a desk in a Grade 5 classroom, it has precipitated a veritable holodeck of bereavement memories.