I wrote a longer version of this piece about JFK a few years ago when I was teaching 12th grade English. I was modeling for my students, furnishing an example for the essays they would write about a significant moment in their lives. On this 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death, I offer it as a reflection on the extent and depth of the impact Kennedy had on so many young people of my generation.
It is true what they say about historic moments: You remember where you were, what you were doing. I was standing on the steps of Harrison Hall—the science building—at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, the morning that John F. Kennedy was shot. Someone told me the bare facts when I came out of the building after my zoology class. I hurried back to my living unit and crowded around the TV set with my friends, hanging on every word that came out of Parkland Hospital and the Dallas Police Station, every scrap of information from Walter Cronkite. No one spoke.
I had seen Kennedy in person just two years before. He was coming to Iowa on a campaign trip in September and would take part in a motorcade through downtown Davenport. My government teacher had dismissed class for the afternoon so that we seniors could be part of the crowd that would line the streets that day, so that we could see for ourselves the handsome young senator from Massachusetts who had so fired our imaginations. Those of us who drove to school took those who didn’t in our cars. We sped downtown, found parking places, and raced on foot to the levee. We must have scoped this all out ahead of time—or our teacher had—for we knew right where to stand. Maybe the parade route was in the newspaper.
Just so you know—and so you understand how a single teacher could dismiss school for the afternoon—I attended high school in Davenport, Iowa, a town across the Mississippi River from my home in Illinois. I was a day student at a school for girls, grades K-12. When I enrolled in the 8th grade, there were eight students in my class. By the time I graduated, we were a class of seventeen, considered big in comparison to other classes. Mr. Hostetter, our government teacher and the teacher of every history class I took in high school (American, Ancient, British, and World as well as Government in my senior year), was also the Dean of Students and sometimes even the bus driver. However, by the time Kennedy came to town, I was driving myself to school.
We were kids in gray uniforms—maybe that was how we managed to hold our positions at the front of the crowd. People shouted and squealed and elbowed their way forward, jockeying for a clear view. Most were adults, but we recognized kids from the public high schools, too. We waited impatiently for the car to come, probably for an hour or so, all that time staking our territory against the urgency of other admirers and the aggressiveness of those who just wanted a look at the audacious young Democrat whose Catholic background made him a novelty in this overwhelmingly Protestant, Republican community.
He was handsome indeed. Intense eyes, a shock of loose, casual hair that swept back off his face in a fresh and unconstructed way—so different from the bald President Eisenhower and his dark, slicked-back Vice-President, Nixon. Kennedy smiled at us directly; we saw white, even teeth and a shine in those eyes. His arm stretched out across the window ledge of the convertible. I reached for it…and he took it.
Maybe it was my friend Pam whose hand he shook. Isn’t that funny? The high point of the story and I can’t remember if it was she or I who actually touched his hand. Probably it was she or I wouldn’t have this doubt about which of us it was. Certainly she had as much claim to the shock of it as I did. Both of our fathers were Republican businessmen—and her father was ardently involved in Republican politics as well. Our parents thought our infatuation with Kennedy was just that: a crush that would pass. My father said I was a “tide-bucker,” not a Democrat at all.
But it wasn’t about political parties. I was inspired by Kennedy. He touched a nerve in me with his sympathy for the poor and oppressed. I knew I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, not just enjoy my own. So when Kennedy said in his inaugural address in that January of my senior year, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” I knew he was speaking directly to me, directly to my generation, to all the kids who had lined the streets in the cities along the campaign trail. He called upon us in that speech to participate in a struggle against “the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself… Can we forge against these enemies,” he asked, “a grand and global alliance…that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort?”
Yes, I vowed. I will.
After college, I joined VISTA, the domestic Peace Corps (now called Americorps) and after that, I became a teacher. I didn’t serve in inner-city schools—my family and I have never lived in big cities. I didn’t become a union organizer, though I do, proudly, belong to the union. I didn’t burst onto the national scene and transform education policy, either.
But I did love my students in all their splendid diversity. I tried to teach perseverance so that they would be successful. I tried to instill a love of learning. In a variety of ways, curricular and extra-curricular, I exposed my students to a wider world than they had yet known in hopes that they would learn to appreciate others and live caring lives.
Looking back all these many years, I can’t imagine a better way to have spent my life or a better way to have served my country. Because that is what teachers do: We serve. Through our instruction, our example, and our own perseverance, we shape the country—even the world—for years to come.
Kennedy reached out his hand, and I took it.
All of my life since, I have tried to pass on that handshake.