Friday, a school day. Just a week after my 12th birthday. Perhaps I would have put on a skirt and blouse that day, along with one of my prized mohair sweaters. I begged for mohair sweaters for months and had two of them finally. So I might have worn the red one, the cardigan, over my blouse on that clear, crisp fall day. We had to wear skirts or dresses to school, not pants or jeans, unless it was an all too rare “casual day, ” when we were allowed to wear denim pants or slacks to school. But on a regular day, it was dresses or skirts. If I was wearing a skirt, I would walk a couple of blocks away from home before rolling the waistband over a few times until the skirt fell just to my knees. I would have worn a pair of cheap mesh stockings the color of a late summer tan. Over the stockings, white socks—or maybe colored socks if I had some that matched my outfit. But the stockings had to be underneath. My legs were now shaved smooth; I was relieved and proud to have finally won this small but crucial battle with my mother. I was twelve, after all.
My friends and I would walk the last few blocks together with our arms crossed over our chests, holding our books and binders for school. Those binders were divided into subject sections for all of our classes: History, Math, English, Science, Chorus, and Spanish. On Fridays we took our gym clothes home to wash; on Monday we’d bring them back, laundered and ironed. When the teacher called the roll, we would answer “clean and complete” if we were wearing fresh gym clothes. If we were having our period and chose not to participate, we would answer “observing” and the teacher would make a note in her grade book.
My last two classes of the day were science and math. These were not my favorites, although I liked my teachers. But I liked English better, and I especially liked chorus. We had a very young and enthusiastic teacher who taught both, who loved her subject matter and introduced us to beautiful music, both for listening and for singing. Some kids rolled their eyes and perhaps mouthed the lyrics, but I put my heart into it, raising my eyebrows for the high notes and feeling a little chill when something went just right.
At the end of the day, especially on a Friday, all of us 7th graders were a bit antsy for the bell to ring, squirming in our chairs or passing notes. The wiseacres in the class may have gotten bolder, but not too bold. Towards the end of science class, as I remember it, a kid poked his head in the door and said, “The President’s been shot. It’s on TV.” We stopped what we were doing and looked at Mrs. Griffith, our teacher. She got one of the boys to help her roll the large TV, the one that rested on a tall wooden box, in front of our desks, and turned on the news so we could hear Walter Cronkite tell us what the rest of the nation already knew: someone had killed President Kennedy as he drove through Dallas that morning.
Someone laughed and said I’m glad, and we stared at that kid and wished she would shut up. Whether we saw all of that then or heard it over the next few days, it’s hard to remember: Dallas, the motorcade, Dealey Plaza, the grassy knoll, the Texas School Book Depository, a lone gunman, Jackie’s pink suit stained with her husband’s brains and blood, Parkland Hospital.
But when the bell rang, we went to our math class. Mrs. McGlothlin told us to open our books. She said while she realized we were all upset about the news, we might as well go ahead and do our math. Then she managed to keep us on task until the final bell, when we all went home to our families.
My family sat in front of the TV all weekend, watching events unfold. Johnson sworn in, the coffin with the young president’s body lying in state, the speeches. Lee Harvey Oswald, caught and then killed right on TV. And on Monday, the funeral, a national day of mourning: young Caroline, and Jackie in her long black veil, a mother leaning down to remind her little John-John in his short pants and coat, on his third birthday, to salute as the flag-draped coffin went by. The horses, the one with no rider, boots backwards in the stirrups; the tears, all the people.
When I was by myself in the only private place in my house—the bathroom—I looked in the mirror and went over it in my mind. The President. Someone shot the President. What kind of world was I living in? I had just turned twelve.