Second grade was the year I asked for and got a stuffed French poodle for Christmas. I named her Fifi. She had thick wire in her legs and could stand on my dresser by herself. It was the year that Mama made me a pink pin-wale corduroy dress for the Valentine's Day party at school. It had a Peter Pan collar and a high yoke with tiny pearl buttons down the front. It was the year that I added to my vocabulary the words college, scholarship, and author and decided that those words were mine.
It was in first grade that I took my first tentative steps out into the world, but second grade was the moment when I realized my autonomy, my separateness, my ability to experience things and feelings distinct and apart from my family.
One November afternoon, sunny but with the dullness of fall, the brown wooden box on the wall at the upper left-hand corner of the chalkboard crackled to life. “Attention please,” said Mr. Adams, our principal. “Teachers, attention please. President Kennedy has been shot.” And he placed the big silver microphone near a radio from which a scratchy voice offered up the first reports of what had just happened in Dallas.
I remember Peggy Franklin bursting into tears. I remember Mama holding the screen door open as I stepped off the bus, her face drawn and tears sliding down her cheeks. I remember sitting in a big leather chair at my grandfather’s furniture store on West Main Street watching the flickering gray television images of horses and the soldiers moving slowly down the street in what I recognized as Washington, D.C. . I remember John John in his little double-breasted coat saluting his father's casket.
I remember the rapid expansion of my vocabulary to include assassination, motorcade, and cortege.
A couple of weeks ago I happened to be in Dallas for a few hours with a friend and her two grown daughters. Our hotel was just a few blocks away from the site of the assassination and we decided to pay a visit. The concierge at the hotel handed us a map and pointed out the spot. Dealey Plaza.
In five minutes the four of us were standing on the sidewalk where, over 50 years ago, crowds had stood and waved and cheered the handsome young president and his beautiful wife in her pink Chanel suit. We could see the building that used to be the Texas School Book Depository. We actually stood on the grassy knoll.
Sandra and I shared with her girls what we remembered. One of them remarked that they’d not covered the Kennedy assassination in school. Probably, I told her, the same reason that we never got to the Korean War. We ran out of time.
I’ve thought of that conversation a lot since I got home, thought of it in connection with the admonition that Moses offered the children of Israel as they set out to take the Promised Land. It’s important to remember, he told them. It’s important to tell your children what happened before. Rehearse it in their ears. Over and over. Tell them the stories. The good ones and the bad ones. The victories and the defeats. The moments when the human spirit triumphed over despair and the moments when despair seemed – for the moment, but only for the moment – to win.
We have to tell them. We can’t leave it to their friends or the schools or the churches. We can’t leave it to the news media or social media or any other media. It is up to us, the adults who love them. We have to tell them the most important story of all – that hope never runs out of time.