November 22, 1963: Who Were You Then?

To an older generation of Americans, the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination takes them back to that day. Everyone remembers exactly where they were.  They visualize classrooms, doctors’ offices, elevators, coffee shops. The memories are specific: “It was my birthday. The principal came to the door and my Kindergarten teacher put the cupcakes back in the box.”

USA Today reporter, Rich Hampton, put a different spin on the question. He asked  “Who Were We?” On the 50th anniversary of the assassination in 2013, he gave a word picture of November 22, 1963, that included the following:

“Hillary Rodham is a teenage Republican. John Kerry, a sophomore at Yale, is five years from piloting a Swift Boat in South Viet Nam.  John McCain is four years from being shot down over North Viet Nam. Muhammad Ali is still Cassius Clay. No one is burning his draft card or her bra.  If you’re going to San Francisco, you don’t wear flowers in your hair. The manager of the Beatles is about to convince an influential American disc jockey to play their records.”

If you were of school age in 1963, I invite you to answer the question–on November 22, 1963–Where were you? Who were you then?  If this was before your time, I invite you to ask an older sibling or parent.  Who knows, you may have your own untold “This is Us” episode.

I was a 21 year-old student at the University of North Dakota. I would graduate in June with a Bachelor’s degree in elementary education.  I’d already taught school for two years, certified in a program common in North Dakota at that time.

A teacher shortage had given me the choice of any elementary school in the state. I applied to schools in the western part of the state because the $3400 annual salary topped that of the eastern towns, which paid only $2900.  After a stammering telephone interview, I was hired, sight unseen, by the superintendent of schools to teach first grade in New Town, ND.  The town, which bordered the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, was only ten years old, built, I was told, to relocate the citizens of Sanish, Elbowoods, and Van Hook, after the Garrison Dam diversion project flooded their towns.

My mother, nervous about her only child heading west, cautioned me, “It seems awfully close to an Indian reservation.”

In my hometown, which served the surrounding farming community, Norwegians and Germans constituted diversity. The only black people in my life were Amos and Andy, who actually were white but we never knew it, and Jack Benny’s gravelly-voiced butler, Rochester. It didn’t occur to me to be prejudiced against black people. What’s not to like about Rochester, a scripted stereotype?

But 60 miles away, the “other” existed.  Indians. They provided the “them” to our “us”. Small town culture taught me that Indians were dirty and most of them were drunks.

I didn’t share my mother’s concern about my new teaching position. I was confident that Indian children would attend reservation schools, not the public school in which I’d be working.

I moved in with three teacher roommates, and soon realized that even though I was 19, I’d left the teenage years behind. I had a Miss in front of my name, store clerks called me Ma’am, and I could frighten little kids with a single stern expression. I was, in short, the new first grade teacher.

The proprietor of the local dress shop catered to the teachers, and on her buying trips to Minneapolis, she held in mind the image she had created for each of us, and bought outfits accordingly. She may not have had enough sleep the night before, or maybe suffered a slight fashion miscalculation, but when she returned from the Twin Cities and proudly displayed her choice for me, I was surprised. The silk and rayon two-piece navy dress had a rounded neckline, ready to display a string of pearls. The style–simple yet elegant, left no doubt that the “Jackie Kennedy look” had arrived in North Dakota. Unable to think of a single trait Jackie Kennedy and I had in common, I nevertheless gamely stuffed my five-foot, one-inch figure, still pudgy from the added “Freshman Fourteen” pounds, into the garment, and basked in the glow of new-found confidence.

But the biggest awakening of my life had nothing to do with my perceived adult status or a step up in the fashion world.  It happened quietly, the first day of school when 25 six-year-olds, eager, excited and scared all at the same time, took their seats, and looked up at me to see what would happen next. My assumption that I would teach a segregated white class proved incorrect. Half of my students were Native American, members of the Three Affiliated Tribes: Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa.

I began to learn about the tribes’ centuries-old culture. Their ancestors had sheltered Lewis and Clark during a winter so severe they would have surely perished on their own. The tribes farmed the fertile Missouri River bottomland building a vibrant, self-sufficient community with strong spiritual traditions.  And then, in 1953, their homes, their economic means of existence, and all traces of their past disappeared forever under the waves of the massive Lake Sakakawea reservoir created by the Garrison Dam.

I learned about poverty and its connection to disease and alcoholism. Injustice—a word I’d never paid attention to before, entered my vocabulary and my heart. As I cherished and learned from each of my first grade students, I felt betrayed by the prejudice I’d been taught from the time I could toddle. At the same time, I knew I had gained an understanding that could never be taken away.

I loved my students, and all that I was learning, but I was 21. I wanted to spread my wings and see the world, so I headed back to college to finish my education.

* * *

September 25, 1963, found me part of the crowd pouring down every sidewalk that led to the UND Field House in Grand Forks, North Dakota. John F. Kennedy, President of the United States, would address the students at noon.

Anticipation gave spring to my steps. I loved Kennedy’s voice, his accent, his handsome good looks. I had admired him since I first heard of him from my New Town roommate, Pat, and my thoughts took me back to our apartment where her wall was adorned with a poster of Adlai Stevenson unknowingly revealing the worn-out sole of his shoe.

Pat, a public health nurse, had voted for JFK and her enthusiasm made me sorry that I hadn’t been old enough to vote. By 1964 I would pass the 21-year old milestone and I knew that JFK would get my vote.

The jostling of the crowd brought me back to the moment. We scrunched closer together on the bleachers as more people arrived. I waved to my friend Alpha and her law-school husband, Steve, a few rows behind me.  Steve, conservative Republican and no fan of Kennedy; Steve, who in five years would be dead, killed in the TET offensive in Viet Nam, leaving Alpha to raise their twin sons by herself.

Kennedy walked through the side entrance onto the stage, with the familiar gesture of brushing his hand through his hair before stopping behind the podium in front of the UND emblem.  The crowd rose to their feet in an exhalation of cheers and applause that lingered through Kennedy’s smiles and soft “thank-yous” into the mike.

I didn’t listen to Kennedy’s words as much as the power and passion of his voice. Carl Whitman, the tribal chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, had met with Kennedy at the White House and I still had the newspaper clipping in my diary. I anticipated the phone call I would make to Pat after I cast my vote.

With job interviews in Colorado on my calendar, I’d soon be a teacher again. I knew Kennedy supported education. I’d be his ally. We’d fight injustice together, and make life better for all Native American children, including the struggling families at Fort Berthold. I’d be 22 years old in just a few weeks, and I knew my life would make a difference.

* * *

Two months later, on a chilly November day, as I returned to my dorm room, the girl across the hall, opened her door, gave me a somber stare, and rushed down the hall.

“Where are you going? What’s wrong?” I called.

She answered over her shoulder.  “The president’s been shot. In Dallas. It’s on TV –in the lounge.” I threw my books down and raced after her.

Without warning, my buoyant, many-faceted dreams lay shattered in fragments I could not comprehend. In the lingering reverberation of a bullet, my future had begun.


Lucy BellLucy Bell is a retired teacher and writing consultant. Her thirty-five year teaching career included creating FIRSTWRITE, a program that helped hundreds of teachers teach first graders creative writing, even before they could spell. She is currently a featured contributor for the online magazine US Represented and the literary journal Almagre Review. Molly and the Cat who Stole Her Tongue is her first children’s novel.