A skinny kid, I was standing in front of Mrs. Garrett’s desk, wringing my hands nervously as she graded a thorny arithmetic problem I had labored over. Mrs. Garrett was my second grade teacher, and I often thought of her as ‘The Dragon’. She was a no-nonsense, African-American lady of middle age. Seldom did she show any emotion except to glare at the high jinks of the boys in class. She was not a favorite teacher, and was, in fact, quite frightening to the timid little girl I was. As I watched her dreaded red pencil make marks all over my page of numbers, my spirits drooped. She would sigh periodically and shake her head. “Oh, Kate… haven’t you been listening in class?” she’d say, as if my poor arithmetic skills were an affront to her.
She probably would have dropped from memory after all these years except she lives with me in a time capsule – a moment, it seems to me – that only she and I will share as long as my memories remain intact. We are forever connected by the murder of a president.
You see, it was on the afternoon of November 22, 1963, that I stood close to Mrs. Garrett as she graded my work, and together we looked up as one of the other teachers knocked on the classroom door and approached her desk.
“The President’s been shot,” he said breathlessly, looking at Mrs. Garrett, seemingly oblivious to my presence. “They’ve shot the President!”
Too young to understand the significance of this, I just stood there, watching him. “It was on the radio just now…”
I can’t recall his leaving our classroom. I suppose he must have said something and left. All I remember is standing next to Mrs. Garrett. She seemed stunned. “The President… oh Lord.” She laid her red pencil down and stared at the paper for a second. I watched as she then removed her glasses and rubbed the corners of her eyes. Was she crying? To this day I can’t say with any certainty whether those were tears she wiped away or just a movement to calm her tension.
Finally, she put the glasses back on and looked at me. “Return to your seat, Kate. There will be no more lessons today.” Her voice seemed sad.
My parents had the television on nonstop over the next several days, and my child’s brain was assaulted with poignant and horrible images: a beautiful young woman in a smart suit stained with her husband’s blood; a television newscaster named Walter Cronkite barely able to contain his grief as he reported on tragic events in a place called Dallas; a brother meeting his dead brother’s wife at an airport when the plane carrying his brother’s casket landed; and a little boy dressed in short pants raising his hand in a final salute to the father he would never get to know. There were other images, too, memorable for their ugliness: a weasel-like man shot dead on American television by another unsavory character, all somehow intertwined in an American Tragedy.
And yet the thing I remember most about that terrible time is Mrs. Garrett, a stricken look on her face, removing her glasses and rubbing away what might have been tears.