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Monday, November 18, 2013

When JFK Died

At the risk of putting forth a hackneyed cliche, I remember clearly where I was when JFK died.

It was an unseasonably warm November day in the comfortable Washington suburbs.  I was in Mr. Blankenship's 5th grade class when the PA crackled, and Mrs. Jones, the principal, called all teachers to the office.  Mr. Blankenship gave us some busy work, told us to behave, and without further ado, left 20-odd ten- and eleven-year-olds on their own.  A few minutes later, he returned.  Ashen-faced, he announced that the president had been shot.  We all put our pencils on our desks, stupefied by the news.  A few of the girls murmured, wondering how it could happen; most of us sat in stunned silence.  A few minutes passed, and Mrs. Jones came back on the PA to announce that the president had died, and we were going to be sent home early.

Never before had such silence reigned when school was dismissed early.  The only voices on the school bus home were hushed.  I said nothing to my friends who got off the bus with me, and they said nothing to me.  Perhaps the other kids were introspective.  I, however, was simply stunned, for a world I had pretty much taken for granted had somehow been pierced. All that afternoon, the only quick human motion I noticed was the much younger brother of a friend racing down a driveway with an armload of toys he had collected to put away. In my own household, a somber mood prevailed.  My mother and older brothers sat glued to the television.  It did not hold my attention, but I remained bothered and unhappy, feeling that the world had changed forever.

Indeed, it had.  As I look over the high school classes I teach, I am aware that if I leave them unattended, either I or they are likely to get in trouble.  Yet back in those primitive, simpler times, Mr. Blankenship did not have to think twice about leaving a roomful of pre-teens alone to confer with his principal for a few minutes. My second brother, who had just finished high school, had been a member of a marksmen's club.  Every so often, he carried a .22 rifle (action open, of course) and a box of cartridges to school, parked them in his locker, took them out at the end of the school day, and joined a group of his peers to practice shooting paper targets set up before a large bank behind his school under the supervision of a willing teacher.  The number of students and school staff dead from gun-related violence or accidents in those days: zero.  Yet today, my students may not bring a coat or bookbag to class, lest they smuggle in drugs or a weapon to be used on a human being rather than an inanimate target. My parents could leave my third brother and me to our own devices for a few hours and expect the house to be in reasonable order when they returned.  Today, they'd be charged with child neglect.

In retrospect, it was not the Kennedy assassination that unleashed the devils.  That event was only a symptom of welling social and intellectual magma churning just below the facade of of our then-civilized society.  In rapid order, the civil rights movement, the Viet Nam quagmire, the counter culture,the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King all burst forth on our society.  People of my brothers' generation, raised to see their country as a shining city on a hill saw America's problems exposed before the world's gaze, and concluded that far from being an especially good and noble society, theirs was an especially evil and tainted one. 

But perhaps it was not so much Kennedy's death as the political movement in which he positioned himself that changed everything.  Crisis became something to be exploited as a catalyst for larger government intervention to "solve" the problems; personal responsibility retreated. As the omniprovident state grew in our own society, the omnipresent "Big Brother" state of our totalitarian adversaries could be viewed in a more benevolent light. As American legal structures came to be exposed as instruments of oppression, the lawlessness of the oppressed came to be legitimated. Out with the Mayflower Compact and the Founding Fathers, in with Marx, Mao, and Fanon!

Kennedy's death saved his legacy as a liberal martyr. Had Lee Harvey Oswald been a worse shot, Kennedy, not Johnson, would be remembered as the president of the blighted legacy.  His erstwhile acolytes on the Left would have savaged him for his anti-Communism and tax-cutting.  The frustrations of unmet rising expectations on the part of minorities and the poor whose problems Kennedy's social agenda was supposed to have met would have found their target in Kennedy, rather than in the Johnson who would be left holding Kennedy's bag.  A Kennedy who had lived could well have gone off into an embittered, isolated ex-presidency, his tarnished stewardship of his office barring his extended clan from the quasi-royal status they later enjoyed. Possibly, a conservative revolution might have begun earlier. Perhaps a failed Kennedy presidency would have forced a tempering of heady expectation, and a greater appreciation for normalcy.

Of course, we can only conjecture; we cannot know for sure.

But, this I know:  America changed forever when I was in the 5th grade.

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