Sixth grade was boring as hell, and our teacher at P.S. 186 in Queens, NY had a terrible nervous nose twitch which earned her the nickname “Twitch.” She also had the personality of plywood. Her idea of interpersonal communication was to announce which page in the math workbook we should complete, QUIETLY! That way she wouldn’t have to talk to us.
Another way of avoiding an actual conversation with the class that masqueraded as learning experience was having the class listen to a radio program broadcast by WNYE, the New York City educational radio station.
We were listening/dozing through one such program when it was interrupted by static, then an announcer shouting seemingly incoherent things like “we don’t know what’s going on yet!”
Since one of my jobs in the class was “radio monitor,” or the guy who pulled a 15-minute shift pumping WNYE programs to the various classrooms, Twitch sent me down to the principal’s office to investigate.
As I walked into the office I saw our principal, Henry H.C. Poliakoff, at the radio panel adjusting switches and knobs with a sense of urgency. He turned to me and in his South Carolina accent directed me to return to my classroom immediately.
My classroom, 319, was on the third floor and as I emerged from the staircase I could hear the horror booming from every loudspeaker in every room, echoing off the walls with the announcer who previously seemed incoherent, now speaking quite clearly as he intoned, “The President is dead! I repeat, the President is dead!”
As I made my way to my room, doors flew open as teachers reflexively left their classes for a moment to catch their breath and some began sobbing, shaking their heads, a few murmuring “No, no, no, no, no….”
When I returned to 319 Twitch directed me to my seat. The class was raptly listening to the continuing news coverage being piped into each room’s loudspeaker. For the first time Twitch spoke to us as if she was each of our moms. “Do you all understand what is happening?” she quietly asked us. We did. “Are any of you feeling ill? Can I help you?” There were two girls quietly crying and asked to be held for a moment. Our teacher complied. Otherwise we simply sat there. Numb from the news.
Presidents were only assassinated in history books. Lincoln murdered by John Wilkes Booth in Fords Theater. William McKinley shot in Buffalo by an anarchist. But JFK. My God. JFK! As kids we connected with his youth, his children, Caroline and John Jr. Little girls wanted to be grown women as glamorous as First Lady Jacqueline. President Kennedy espoused “vigor,” youth, hope, a peaceful future without the threat of Communism. But now he was gone. We heard it on the radio.
What do you do next? We were simply told to go home. Along the one-mile walk from P.S. 186 to our apartment there was none of the usual school gossip, or stupid dirty jokes or bragging about a new bike or recent raise in allowance. We walked silently and uncertainly. Presidential assassinations were no longer just pages in history books. There was now one that would become permanently inscribed in our own life stories and affected every future chapter.