Why my fourth-grade class didn't respond appropriately when we learned JFK had been killed

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The Nov. 24, 1963, Chicago Sun-Times and, in background, the Nov. 25, 1963, Chicago Daily News
  • Steve Bogira
  • The November 24, 1963, Chicago Sun-Times and, in background, the November 25, 1963, Chicago Daily News
I can't say I was devastated when I heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot to death in Dallas. In truth, I was relieved.

In my defense, I was nine. I was a fourth grader at Louis Pasteur, a public school on the southwest side, near Midway Airport. Pasture, everyone in the neighborhood called the school.

In the days leading up to November 22, my class had apparently been unruly on the playground at recess. I don't think we'd been doing much besides the ordinary chasing and screaming. But our teacher, Miss Merkin, had passed along a warning from the principal that our recess privileges would be suspended if we didn't soon become more ruly.

An empty threat, we all assumed, and so our anarchy continued on Pasture's blacktop for 15 exhilarating minutes each morning and afternoon.

Following afternoon recess on Friday, November 22, 1963, we returned to classroom 214, panting from another unmannerly game of tag. Miss Merkin stood at the front of the classroom. She looked shaken.

"Boys and girls—I have something awful to tell you," she began.

We knew what was coming. The only redeeming part of the school day was being snatched from us.

"President Kennedy has been shot and killed in Texas."

An audible, collective sigh breezed through the classroom. A sigh of relief. Then we immediately donned our somber faces.

And we kept them on the rest of the afternoon. Miss Merkin led some sort of civics discussion, during which I casually mentioned that I knew the Gettysburg Address by heart. She of course had me stand and recite it.

There was an abbreviated morning of school Monday—I suppose that even then, the public schools got a government per diem. We watched the start of the funeral procession on TV. Apparently we also sang "America the Beautiful," led by school superintendent Benjamin Willis on the Board of Education's radio station. I don't recall this, but a story in that afternoon's Chicago Daily News says it happened in all the city's public schools.

The reporter who wrote that story, Lois Wille, spent the morning at Pershing elementary, at 31st and Rhodes, where she saw children "hushed and weeping." She recounted a whispered conversation between two ten-year-olds. "I liked the thing that he said about, 'What you can do for your country,'" Sheridan Clark told George Carry. "He was always telling people to be kind," George whispered back. "That's what civil rights is about. He wanted that."

I'm glad Wille didn't learn of the initial reaction in room 214 at Pasteur, although I doubt it would have made her story.

At 10:30, students at Pershing and Pasteur and throughout Chicago were sent home to watch the funeral. On Tuesday, we all went back to school. My classmates and I returned to 214, and ordinary life resumed, including recess.

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