I know exactly where I was at 2:00 PM on November 22, 1963: climbing the stairway of Shawnee Middle School, moving between classes. Over the PA system came our principal’s somber voice informing us that President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas. He asked us to pray for the president. Before the end of that school day, our principal returned to the PA system to deliver the tragic news that the 35th president of the United States was dead. I was in music class. It was the first time I’d ever seen a teacher cry.
A few weeks ago, at the beginning of November, I was in Dallas, staying at a hotel three blocks from Dealey Plaza, where the bullets that killed the president had been fired. I wasn’t at all certain that I wanted to visit the site. Historic yes, but also incredibly tragic. At the hotel, I ran into a couple of friends who were on their way to visit the Texas School Book Depository, where it’s generally believed the fatal shots were fired by Lee Harvey Oswald, and where the sixth floor has been turned into a museum. I asked them to report back to me when they returned.
They looked somber when I saw them next, their color actually gone gray, and they told me I had to go. So I did.
When I came away from the experience, I agreed that it was a necessary thing I’d done, but every bit as difficult as I’d imagined, because for me it was relieving trauma. In that sixth floor storage room, where Oswald crouched and waited and aimed and fired, I found the sense of tragedy to be palpable, stifling. Across almost sixty years, I still reacted with the kind of horror that had contributed dramatically to the end of innocence for children of my generation. For those born earlier than I, it might have been the news of Pearl Harbor. For those born later, watching the Twin Towers burn and collapse.
When we talk about history, we seldom talk about those moments of selflessness or generosity or goodwill that are also a part of what has brought us to wherever we are in time. History so often has the feel of a bell tolling nothing but tragedy. It is, I suppose, necessary to remember these things and to enshrine those memories in a place like the Texas School Book Depository. It’s important, maybe even vital, that we not forget. But looking back on that day when I saw for myself the site of assassination, one thing I remember profoundly was that I when left the darkness of the museum, I stepped into sunlight. And there was a lesson for me in that moment, too.