November 22, 2013

Everybody Knows

Anniversaries are important. Not just because it's good for the soul to take a moment to reflect on the passage of time, the importance of memory. They are important because they are our closest connection to history.

The number of years that have passed after an event are a story of their own. Of changes, and scars.

I remember the 30th Anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. That might not be an important date to some, but it is to me. And it mattered a lot to people, at the time. When looking back fifty years, it can be hard to remember what it felt like to look back a few decades ago.

Of course, I have no recollections of the actual event. I was born in 1984- I was a young child twenty years ago. But it was important to the adults in my life. Nobody more so than my fifth grade teacher.

"Thirty years ago, somebody killed the president of the United States," she told us. "His name was John F. Kennedy, and he was a great president."

I already knew who he was. I had his face in coloring books at home, I knew it graced the money in my piggy bank. I knew he was another dead president. I hadn't really thought about the fact that he had been killed while he was in office.

"Your mommies and daddies will remember exactly where they were when Kennedy was killed," she said. "They'll know."

Then she told us where she was. She was a second year student in an all black teacher's college. I thought it was strange that she added that detail. Why does that matter? I wondered. She mentioned it four times, that she and the other black girls gathered around the one little black and white television. She said something about race and equality. I frowned, trying to figure out what that had to do with anything.

What did being black and going to college have to do with President Kennedy being shot?

With completely uncharacteristic self restraint, I didn't raise my hand to ask the question. I watched her dab at the tears in her eyes with a kleenex, listened to her say that every grown-up we knew, our parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles, they would all know where they were.

I didn't think about that particular day in school for a couple of years. Not until I watched "Forrest Gump," a year or so after it came out on VHS. I was twelve years old, and when Forrest mentioned the Kennedy assassination to a strange woman on the park bench, she responded with where she was.

And Mrs. Butler's whole lesson on the assassination came flooding back.

I asked my father where he was when Kennedy was killed. He was at school, in first or second grade. He was very young, and the teacher announced that school was canceled and the children were going home. A kid in his class cheered, and he said he knew before the teacher exploded in rage and grief that this was not a time to cheer. That you never cheer when a person is murdered. That you never celebrate the assassination of a president.

I remembered Mrs. Butler's speech, her allusions to the importance of the event for her and her friends, black kids in college in the 1960s.

I understood much more at thirteen about the Civil Rights movement than I did at nine. I understood that Kennedy represented an America that seemed able to grow, to compromise, to shed the indignities and hatreds of the past. I understood that Kennedy was a part of the Civil Rights movement, that Martin Luther King, Jr. had not been a solitary entity, working alone.

These are the misconceptions that can be left when history is too raw, too fresh to teach thoroughly. When you live through something, you understand its intricacies, its complexities, without having to catalog them to yourself. You already know.

When you live through something, the only thing you need to jump start your own total recall is a date, a video clip, a few strained words through a radio broadcast, a quote, a solitary photograph.

Anniversaries are about more than remembering- they are about observing what has changed.

In the last fifty years, our country has changed. The idea of presidential assassination is ingrained into our awareness of public life in a way that is fundamentally different now than it was fifty years ago. It's filtered through our media and our art and our culture to a point where the idea of a president being shot is at worst commonplace plot device, and at least a catalyst for the continuation of history.

Fifty years is a long time. It's long enough that the majority of Americans have no meaningful memories of that day. When my children ask me what happened, I won't be able to tell them the whole story. I won't be able to explain what it was like to have a president who associated himself with the civil rights movement- my children were born during the Obama administration. I won't be able to explain to them what it was like to be glued to a television to see the live assassination of the assassin- they'll live in the constantly connected post-Twitter world of instant information and vine videos and Instagrammed selfies from every event of any significance across the entire planet.

They will never understand the fear of not knowing what was happening. They will never understand the delay of information. They will never understand the Kennedy Assassination, just as I will never understand it.

That is what makes it history. That is what makes it important. That is why it is essential to learn, to catalog the events of the day, to listen to all those memories of where people were, because it matters. Each of those memories is a piece of a puzzle, one that will never be fully assembled. And the picture is history.

It's more than names and dates. It's what the world was like in the moment it was changed.

Anniversaries, like today, are the time we take to put more of those pieces into place. To see more of the picture. To reflect on what happened, and who we are now because of that.

Because soon this won't be an anniversary full of personal accounts, stories from teachers and parents and grandparents.

Another fifty years, and there will be no more stories to share. All the telling will be left to books, to teachers who don't weep in the middle of their classrooms at the renewed fear that their new world, their new lives, might be over before they're begun.

Soon all of this will be history. No more. No less.


  1. These recounts are amazing.. I was not around when he was killed, but i like hearing all the recounts.

  2. This is so powerful. I am so glad that I had the chance to read it today.

    Thank you for sharing it.

  3. Wow, that was powerful. I have thought about this before, being the granddaughter of a Pearl Harbor survivor. You can memorize dates and events all you want, but the true power of history is seeing and feeling how the world changed, for better or for worse. Great (and important) post!



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