Mr. Carpenter walked slowly toward the speaker on the wall. He hopped up on the small stage in the front of his classroom and waited for the tinkling xylophone intro to stop. The sound, similar to the NBC station identification was a calm way to get attention. But announcements had ended in period 2. This was period 3 and from the look on Mr. Carpenter's face, something unscheduled was about to go down. After a few microphone clicking sounds, we heard the voice of Mr. Taylor, our beloved Principal. Uncharacteristically, he stammered, cleared his throat, and began.
"This morning, the President of the United States has been shot while traveling in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. He has been taken to a hospital in critical condition. Further details are not available at this time. We will keep you informed as the day progresses."
Mr. Carpenter's face drained white. He said nothing. We said nothing. Then we slowly went back to our grammar books. More sentence diagraming.
Nobody was prepared for this moment. Blindsided would be an understatement.
With 20 minutes left in the class period, some of my classmates began to think about the Friday evening that was less than 7 hours away. Big football game with North Hollywood High. Beyond that, Thanksgiving and Christmas vacation were on the horizon. Other topics swirled in our minds to avoid thinking about Mr. Taylor's announcement. Who just got their driver's license? Who just broke up with whom? Would Senior Prom be as fun as Junior Prom? My own thoughts included: Should I run for Senior class President? Could I win? Would my new girlfriend, who went to a Catholic school be allowed to go to my prom with me?
Oh, and then this thing we just heard about in Dallas. Scary, but our president is young, just about the youngest ever. He'll recover. Right?
With five minutes left in the period we began to close our books. Mr. Carpenter, usually chatty in those remaining minutes, was still off by himself. A minute or two before the bell was to ring, Mr. Taylor interrupted classes again. His voice was noticeably subdued. He told us that the President was dead and that the bell would soon ring for period 4. "Please proceed to your 4th period class," he said. We will resume our regular school schedule unless instructed to do otherwise. Busses will run at normal times." He said something else, I think, but nobody really heard it because all was silent. If silence can be deafening, than this silence shattered ear drums.
My school, Francis Polytechnic High was one of the largest in L.A. City Schools. With an enrollment of nearly 3,000 students, noise was just part of the campus. During that passing period, nobody spoke. Students moved like zombie robots to their next class. Henry Ford would have salivated at the efficiency of how so many adolescents could move swiftly down the line and be in position to resume work in five minutes.
People were waiting. Waiting to hear something more. Waiting to hear who did this? Waiting to hear how and why we were without a President. By mid-afternoon someone mentioned that Lyndon Johnson was now the President. A Texan is the President and Kennedy was killed in Texas?
What does this event do to the Cold War? Does it rear up like it did the previous year when we were all sent home from school as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded. Things could change very quickly; before the brinksmanship that sent those missiles back to the Soviet Union, I saw how fast bread and other staples disappeared from the local supermarket. We were waiting to see if the world would explode.
It did not then, but on this day, November 22, 1963 the explosion was happening slowly and quietly. Questions cascaded like rain and sentence diagraming suddenly meant very little. At 2:55, Mr Taylor made one final announcement. "The football game tonight has been cancelled." Everybody just wanted to go home.