Editor’s note: Dolber is a retired Merrick Avenue Middle School social studies teacher. He taught for 39 years, both in New York City and on Long Island
On the day President Kennedy was killed, my mother turned 41 years of age –– only 5 years younger than he was. I was 13, a ninth-grader at JHS 68 in Canarsie, Brooklyn. Our neighbors were coming over that evening for coffee and cake, and as I sat in my French class sometime after 1 p.m., I was thinking about birthday cake and the upcoming weekend. French was not foremost in my mind, nor was the idea that in a few minutes I would get news of an event that would turn our history upside down.
Earlier that day, in social studies, we had learned about the Open Door Policy in China, and for 39 years, whenever I taught my own social studies classes about that topic, I always thought about JFK.
Toward the end of the class, which was the last period of the day, the principal came to the door, and asked Mme. Siegel to step outside. She returned a few minutes later, looking somewhat shaken, but all she said was that she had disturbing news, and then she went right back to her French lesson. I never quite understood that, although I guess she was told not to talk about it so as not to upset us. It always struck me as absurd that after being told that the president had been shot, she was asking me to tell the class what color the clock was in French. We were finally given the news as we left school for the day.
I remember feeling shocked and upset. We were big Kennedy fans in our house, and I was angered by the fact that a few kids thought it was an appropriate time to crack jokes about him. When I got home, I parked myself in front of the television, where I would remain pretty much throughout the weekend. The historic impact of what we were seeing was not lost on us.
Our neighbors did come over that evening, and we did have birthday cake, but it was not much of a party. TV coverage allowed the nation to have a shared trauma, as Walter Cronkite led us through the entire tragic weekend. We saw the arrival of the body in Washington, accompanied by Mrs. Kennedy in her pink, blood-stained suit. We saw President Johnson (and how weird that sounded) make his statement at the airport, and of course, we were all shocked on Sunday to see Lee Harvey Oswald shot on live TV. On Monday, school was closed, and we all watched the funeral, with the unforgettable image of the late JFK Jr., then 3 years old, saluting his father’s casket.
Strange details stick in your mind when traumatic events such as these take place. I still remember that on Tuesday morning, as I got ready to go back to school, the radio was playing a song by the Impressions, called “It’s Alright.” But I really don’t think that it was.