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Saturday, November 22, 2003

I was in ninth grade, my last year in middle school (which was still called "junior high" then). I was on crutches that fall after a bully pulled my legs out from under me, tearing a cartilage in my right knee. That was the last time I was physically abused by bullies. When I got to high school, it turned to verbal abuse, which hurts more.

A friend (not really, just a kid who volunteered) carried my books as I hobbled from class to class. That Friday morning, we were on our way from gym to world history. Everyone else was already in the classroom. Because of the crutches, I had to hustle between classes after the campus was deserted, so I wouldn't get jostled. I don't think it was a liability issue, not at that time. I think the school really didn't want me to get hurt worse.

The best thing about being unable to walk on my own was that I didn't have to participate in P.E. class. At the time I thought that junior high gym teachers were the worst sadists on earth, but that was probably because it was the only class where I was in the bottom ten percent, ability-wise, instead of the top. I felt picked on because I had a hard time keeping up. I hated that feeling.

But I had to attend class, even if it was just to keep score and hand out towels. As my friend and I were making our way toward world history, a seventh grader came running across the empty playground. As he passed, he shouted, "They shot the president!" I didn't think I heard him right. It had to be a joke, or some kind of code.

Mr. Holman looked grim when we entered the room, but he didn't say anything. Then the classroom phone rang. After he hung up, he turned to us and said, "That was the news I didn't want to have to tell you. President Kennedy was shot in Dallas today. He died."

I don't remember the rest of the day nearly as well. Isn't that strange? Why should the part of the day before it happened be so vivid, and the rest such a blur? It was only third period, but I remember parents coming to pick up their children. The school cleared out little by little, gradually becoming as empty as our hearts.

I waited in the library, where I always hung out after school, until Mom came. I was surprised to see her, for some reason. I think I expected to wait around until the bell rang and then walk home, as usual. Maybe I wanted so much for things to be normal that I was in a kind of denial. Seeing Mom walk into the school library was something that just didn't happen. That's what made it real for me.

We went home and spent the next four days watching history unfold on the black and white TV screen. Walter Cronkite was the calming voice of the time, but even he was too choked up to speak. It was as if the world had stopped, and had to find a way to start over again. In a way it did. In a way it didn't.

21 November 2003

The wisteria. Late afternoon shadows in late autumn.

That is the only day from my childhood that I remember in as much detail. Through the years other events must have affected me, even more directly than something so remote it was covered on the news. People were born and people died. But the only day I can feel as if it were happening again now is that day forty years ago today.

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