When I taught a class in novel writing for Queens University back in the ’90s, characterization was one of my favorite parts of the class. It was fun to talk about ways to make a person who existed only in your head come alive. Because my background was newspapering, one of the strategies I suggested was interviewing a character. One of the questions I always asked, as a way to place my character in time, was, “Where were you on November 22, 1963?”
Twenty years ago, when I used that example in a class, everyone nodded. Because everyone remembered.
Now, it’s been 50 years since President Kennedy was killed. But for those of us who were around then, November 22, 1963, remains a defining moment, a day that divided our world into before and after in the same way that 9-11 did.
I was 11 years old, a sixth grader at Stonewall Jackson Elementary School in Birmingham, Alabama. The President was not a popular man in much of Alabama in those days. This was George Wallace territory. The land of Bull Conner.
My class was in the gym, waiting for our teacher, immediately after hearing about the assassination. As it became obvious our gym teacher wasn’t coming, my classmates erupted in a celebration. The celebration got louder and rowdier. I shrank against the wall, confused and afraid. Then the gym door opened and the eighth grade history teacher, Mr. Nielsen, came in.
The celebration ceased immediately. Mr. Nielsen barked at us to line up. Then he lit into us. He told us that, no matter what we might think about President Kennedy, he deserved our respect. And he did not deserve to die. Mr. Nielsen became my hero that day because in five minutes he restored humanity to children whose parents had taught them hate.
November 22, 1963, changed my life not only because of the assassination and how it altered the direction of our nation, but because it was the day I learned that one person speaking up for what is right can make a difference.