Saturday, December 30, 2006

Private Grief in Public View

In November 1963, I was a 1st grader in Mrs. Thrall's class at Hale Cook Elementary School in Kansas City, MO. I had just turned 6 years old the previous month. Life seemed good...until one fateful Friday afternoon.

I certainly don't remember what we were doing in class that day, probably immersed in discussions of Dick and Jane or working on critical theorems like 1+2= 3. At some point, however, the principal showed up and asked our teacher to go out into the hall. While we couldn't hear the conversation, I do remember hearing Mrs. Thralls' gasp.

When she returned to the classroom, she was in tears. This was probably the first time most of us had seen an adult, other than maybe our parents, cry. In a barely audible voice, she told us that the president was dead. Now we were all crying.

The import of this event was lost on us. Yes, we vaguely knew that John F. Kennedy was the president of our country, but that fact doesn't mean a helluva lot when you're only 6 or 7 years old. I believe that our anguish was motivated by our teacher's obvious anguish. If she was upset, then the president's death must be a really bad thing.

The bus ride home from school that day was surreal. It was the only such bus ride I can remember in which there was no yelling and screaming, and nobody acted up. We all sat quietly in our seats, awaiting our time to disembark.

For the next 3 days or so, the Kennedy assassination and proceedings dominated our small television screen. I remember watching the casket of the slain president moving its way slowly up Pennsylvania Avenue. I remember the state funeral and the flag-draped coffin.

More than anything else, I remember the public view of the Kennedy family's private grief. There, for all the world to see, stood Jackie, Caroline & John Jr., grappling with their own personal loss while light bulbs flashed and video cameras rolled. Even worse were the ridiculous questions posed by the various reporters to members of the Kennedy entourage -- "So, how are you feeling about now? I bet the president's death must have come as a shock to you."

These echoes, whispers and images came bubbling up to the surface this afternoon as I briefly watched the service for former President Gerald R. Ford. There, in the glare of the camera spotlight, was Betty Ford. Just like Jackie Kennedy before her, she was trying to keep a stiff upper lip and not completely breakdown.

Whether one agrees with the politics of a president or government leader, on a base human level, my heart goes out to their families during their time of grief. It's hard enough saying goodbye to a loved one; it's quite another thing to do it with millions of people watching.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are unmoderated, so you can write whatever you want.