My fourth-grade class had just come in from the after-lunch recess in the early afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963. I was sitting next to Sandra Sites in Mrs. Robertson’s room at Carnall Elementary School in Fort Smith, Ark. We were divided into groups, with each one assigned to build a diorama representing the Jamestown settlement of Virginia.
Mrs. Robertson, after getting us settled and divided into our previously determined work groups, had gone into the hallway to quietly talk with a few other nearby teachers, who also had classes doing project work.
A few minutes into the session, we heard some louder conversation in that hallway and then the sound level dropped into a low drone. Mrs. Robertson stepped back into the classroom and told us that she had bad news: “President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas. It happened just a few minutes ago. We don’t know how bad it is. I’ll let you know as soon as we hear more. … You can talk about it, but please do so quietly.” Then she went back out to the hall.
We did talk about it, but mostly we had basic questions or comments, such as “I hope he’s going to be OK.” I hope he doesn’t die.” “I wonder how it happened.” “Do you think he’s going to die?” “My dad doesn’t like him. Does yours?”
Most of us were just 9 years old. A few of us were still 8.
I became a political junkie during the 1960 election between Kennedy, a Democrat, and Vice President Richard Nixon, a Republican. Both sets of my grandparents were for Kennedy, but my parents had been for Nixon — I guess they were youthful rebels of 25 and 23.
But some of our class members did not know a lot about the president or any other parts of the government. It was likely that they had heard of President Kennedy because he was so often in the news and appearing on television.
So all most of us really knew was that “the president” had been shot. We had never been through anything like that. But we were about to learn a lot in the next 72 hours.
A little after 1 p.m., we heard more exclamations from outside the room. I couldn’t hear all of them and don’t remember any of them now. Mrs. Robertson came back into the room — she was crying, but she took a deep breath and said. “President Kennedy has died. That’s all we have heard. We still don’t know what happened. … I know this is sad news and that some of you may be scared. … You’ll all be safe here. Mr. (“Brown” or the principal’s name, which I know longer remember) is going to decide what we’re going to do next. I’ll let you know as soon as we know.”
We talked more, but I don’t remember what we said. Mrs. Robertson, one of my all-time favorite teachers (even though my brother and I went to Carnall for only four months), was in and out of the room for the next few minutes. Eventually, she told us that school was going to be dismissed early and that our parents were being contacted to see if they could come and get us. Then we were moved into the large entryway to the school. We were moved to the front door as our parent or relative worked their way in the line of cars outside to the front of that line.
The rest of the experience was much like that of anyone else who was alive and old enough to remember events of that weekend. We went home, watched reporting of the assassination and its aftermath on television. First came the shooting itself. Then came the pursuit and capture of Lee Harvey Oswald, the suspected killer of Kennedy, some reactions from around the world, the famous scenes that have become iconic, such as the Dallas police officer holding up the rifle that his department said was used to kill Kennedy and, eventually, the fatal shooting of Oswald by Jack Ruby in the basement of the Dallas P.D. It was broadcast live on national television, though many of us (my family included) actually saw it via videotape after we returned home from church around noon or a little after.
School was postponed across the nation on Monday, as the president’s funeral and the events leading up to it were broadcast live. All I remember about that day, other than the television images themselves, is how quiet it was outside as kids in our neighborhood tried to battle each other in a game of “war.” But it didn’t really feel right that day. Like I mentioned, it was eerily quiet and I think we all were distracted as we waited for the funeral to start.
Of course, we each have hundreds of images that may flash through our minds as we recall that time. But mostly I remember sitting beside Sandra Sites at Carnall Elementary when Mrs. Robertson came in to tell us the news.
I haven’t seen Sandra Sites since December of that year (as far as I know). I wonder, wherever she is, what her memories are of that day 53 years ago.