End Of Innocence
She broke the news to us gently.
The details from 50 years ago are cloudy, but it was about two hours after recess at the Mackin Road Units in Flint.
We must have been working on times tables or reading, or learning something that all third-graders learn, when Mrs. Eckstrom, matronly, gray-haired and blessed with infinite patience answered a knock at the back door of our “one-room schoolhouse” to learn from Mrs. Roloff next door that our president was dead.
She closed the door and sat stunned behind her desk, probably hoping we’d keep busy until the end of the day.
It was early in the school year, and we had yet to learn about the leaders of our city or our city’s founders, but we all knew who was president.
She fought back tears when she told us, then opened the door to let us out into a new, darker world.
It only took me a couple of minutes to run around the corner to my house, to find my mother sobbing in front of the television watching Walter Cronkite.
My brother came home a bit later. When my dad came home, we spent dinner glued to the television. It was the first time I saw my dad cry.
To my parents, JFK signaled hope that a better life was waiting for them, that they could shed the fear of the Holocaust and look, with some type of optimism, to the future.
Flint was still reaching its peak in 1963, the jobs were plentiful and there was no looking back. And on that Friday morning, I attended a school that epitomized growth.
The Units were a row of five houses converted into one-room schoolhouses that served about 150 children from kindergarten through third grade in our neighborhood.
Each teacher taught a roomful of kids for one year, and then the entire class moved to another teacher until third grade.
Fourth grade was at a nearby junior high school, and fifth grade was at a newly built elementary school three blocks away. The Units made us close knit and, by fourth grade, it felt like I had 30 brothers and sisters to watch my back.
The Units shared backyard space into one large playground, covered mostly in asphalt. Across the fence from the playground were five backyards, which meant that some kids only had to climb the fence to get home.
On any given day in our neighborhood, scores of kids could be found playing in the streets.
But on that weekend, 50 years ago, I don’t remember being outside.
We missed Lee Harvey Oswald’s shooting on Sunday — out running errands or something. But by the time we found out, it felt like madness had been unleashed.
We watched the funeral procession and cried some more when John-John saluted his dad.
The world had changed in two short days, and it was the first time I thought about things that were outside the realm of what 8-year-olds usually think about. I thought about a scary new world where my teacher could answer a knock at that back door at any time with devastating news.
On Monday morning, I walked to school. We didn’t need school psychologists while Mrs. Eckstrom was in charge. From that day forward, she instilled hope and safety.
And when I was bar mitzvahed five years later, my parents did what other Jewish parents in my neighborhood did — invite that matronly, gray-haired, third-grade teacher. And in the midst of the Vietnam War and student protests, she attended — on April 6, 1968, two days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.