Fifty years ago…
I was in fifth grade. We were playing outside, after lunch, under the honey locust trees that were in the southeast corner of the school. It was 5th-9th grades, in those days, at the "Hill" Jr. High in Española, New Mexico. First through fourth had just that year moved to the new elementary building up toward the hospital.
Our teacher was Mrs. Shilling, whose room was the first to the left (SE corner) of Beta, which was "the new building," just two or three years old then.
When the bell rang and we all lined up at the bottom of the stairs to go in, the teachers were talking, and didn't let us in right away. They were ignoring us, it seemed, and one of the younger women had clearly been crying.
I remember kids looking at each other with big eyes. Nothing like that had ever happened. We kept standing there, and they kept talking to each other quietly, and seriously, as though we weren't all still standing, lined up, waiting to be let into the building.
It was an overcast day, which is unusual for New Mexico, but it wasn't cold. The kids were all quiet, because something was wrong.
One of the teachers was called to the office by another adult, and the other teachers waited for her, there halfway up those concrete steps, and when she came back, there were more red eyes, and adults trying not to cry. They seemed scared, more than anything.
Then they let us into our classrooms. But the lights weren't turned on in our room. It was as dark as it could be in the daytime, kind of all pale and grey in there. I guess the teacher just didn't think about it, didn't notice.
Mrs. Shilling was older, and anglo, and so maybe Protestant. I never knew. She told us that President Kennedy had been shot, and that the busses were going to come and take us all home. She didn't know much more than that. There was just a little bit of talk, and I don't remember it. I think she read to us or gave us something kind of benign to do, because I remember it being quiet, but we started seeing busses pretty soon.
I think the Catholic teachers were the ones the most afraid, because I remember some of the kids had a less calm and calming announcement, from their teachers, which I found out on the bus, where the kids were all more talkative. We were ten, but the bus had kids as old as fifteen. Some were saying that he might have been shot because he was Catholic. Some were saying maybe the Russians would bomb us because of it now. We were used to lots of duck and cover drills, mostly the year before that when I was in 4th grade, so we were all pretty well spooked up about nuclear bombs, and we were just down the hill from Los Alamos National Labs. We were just little, and didn't know what to be afraid of, but the scariest thing for me was that so many adults were quiet and afraid, but trying to be calming and kind to kids who didn't know what was going on. Our bus driver, Mr. Serna, was quiet and businesslike—not grumpy and not joking.
It turned out that the discussions the teachers were having that day were whether we should go home or not. I guess the office was waiting for a decision from the superintendent.
The state said later they shouldn't have done that, and we had to go to school for a half day on a Saturday not long after that, to make up for having missed an all-crucial half day of school. I guess the bus drivers had the most benefit, with special hours on two days.
Also, I have no idea what kids who didn't have a parent home that day were to have done when they got home. I hope everyone had a friend to stay with until parents got home.
My mom told us that Johnson would become president and that the Russians would probably NOT bomb us, because all the army would be ready, or some reassuring thing. I remember thinking that was good thinking,if the military was on the alert. Kids in the bus didn't think of that.
I wrote this at Facebook, but figured I should save it in a more accessible place. I added:
That day, that corner of the school had deep sand, and the fallen seed pods of the honey locusts. Not so long after that (though it seemed like a long time to me then), when I was 21, and a first-year teacher, that corner was paved with black asphalt, and there were two portable buildings there. The first year I taught Jr. High, I was in that place every day, where I had been when Kennedy was shot.