A Fourth Grade History Lesson

(in four chapters)

by Charles Johnson

based on events of that day- the JFK assassination  in the fourth grade classroom in the elementary school I attended.

One chapter each day on Nov. 1, 8, 15 and 22, 2013  

@ charliesixty.wordpress.com

To appear in full version in Hometown Focus, Virginia, MN on Nov. 22, 2013


In chapter one, we learned of the attempt on JFK’s life from teacher Mr. Pacetti as he tells his fourth grade students about it, with custodian Paul looking on.



Paul, who had been leaning in the door jamb, bolted to an erect stance and took a huge breath, eyes widening at the unimaginable truth.   Mr.Pacetti gave him a sorrowful look and a sad nod.  Paul sank back against the door jamb, his head shaking in disbelief.

Mr.Pacetti explained the sketchy and horrific news as best he could, a bit of tremor rattling his normally strong voice.  He had presence of mind to point out Dallas on a wall map.  He told them he was going home to get a radio so they could listen to the news, and that Paul would stay with them for the 10 minutes it would take to drive the three blocks and back.  Mr.P. glanced at Paul for agreement of the plan; Paul nodded imperceptibly in agreement.

Mr P donned his coat and removed his car keys from the left pocket.  He asked the kids to read or draw, to keep quiet – to be at their best for Paul.  He scanned the faces of his stunned pupils, and seeing no sign of anything other than pure obedience.  He gave Paul a hand of encouragement on a shoulder as he passed.

The students were so still and well-behaved for Paul.  The kids sat in their chairs – there was no shuffling of feet, no scraping of chairs on the floor – the sullen, stunning mood and the last words from Mr. P still present in the air.  Mr. P’s footsteps could be heard as he hurried down the stairs and out the door – even up on the second floor, the fourth graders heard the whoosh-click as the door closed behind his departure.

Gaining Paul’s permission with sweet and respectful requests, several students went to the window, the smaller ones standing on their tiptoes to see.  They watched Mr. P enter his car, driving out of the parking space quickly, almost before he even had it started.  As the engine roared to full power, he performed a U-turn in the road and gunned his black 1949 Ford to the intersection by the post office, ignoring the stop sign as he turned left.  They could still see his car as it accelerated up Second Avenue and turned a hard right at Third Street, again ignoring a stop sign.  Some kids even today swear he went around the corner on two wheels.

With Mr. P out of sight, the kids filtered back to their desks, ready to follow the instructions as given.  Paul stepped further into the room, scanning the group to see how they were handling such bizarre circumstances.  Did they realize the import of what had happened in Dallas?  Did they know what it meant to have their president attacked like this?

He first noticed Katie Bender.   As he stood behind and above her, he noticed that she was shaking a little, her small hands wiping away some tears.  He knelt down and put his hand on her shoulder to see what he could do.

She looked at him, more frightened than sad.  She asked him, “This scares me, Paul.  I don’t like this.”  She gave a little sob.

He whispered to her.  “You don’t need to worry, Kate.  We’ll know more when Mr P comes back.”  Katie sniffed out a little ‘thank you’, relaxed a little, took a book out of her desk and started to read, soothed just enough by his words to almost stop her tears.

Paul walked to the front of the room.  He scanned their faces; some trying to keep busy with a book.  Some of the kids watched out the window, looking for Mr. P’s return.  In the second row, John and Dale whispered in serious tones.  Dicky Nelson, Mrs.Hildy’s grandson, gazed out the window and chewed his fingernails as he pondered the news.  Knowing Dicky as he did, Paul signaled with a finger to his own mouth.  Dicky spotted Paul’s motion and got the hint, took his hands away from his mouth, picked up a book on his desk – it was about baseball – and began to read.

From the back of the room came a muttering voice – something about how stupid it was to shoot a president – which to Paul meant that Lenny Vaselas was stirring, as only Lenny can.   He never lost his cool – never yelled, never lashed out.   He used words as his weapons – not swinging fists or kicking feet, which is so typical of nine-year old battlers.  He had a way of stating his feelings that gave him an air of ‘in-your-face’ authority, and he was nearing that stage right now.  Their eyes met, but a good solid glare from Lenny said “leave me alone” – and Paul’s eyes signaled that Lenny should just keep it in control.  Lenny understood.

Paul turned to his left, finding the apple-cheeked, red-haired Molly Carper looking up at him.

“Will Mr. P be back soon?” she asked.  Her voice sounded relaxed; just a hint of tears present on her cheek, betraying her feelings.  She had started a drawing on a piece of manila paper on her desk, using her crayons.  Paul asked her to describe the drawing to him.

“See?  Right here, it’s my house, and here’s my mom and my sister.”

Paul pointed to an object around the house and asked what it was.

Molly rolled her eyes.  “It’s the magic field around our house to keep bad people away.”

Paul uttered a congenial and warm compliment, suddenly aware of how quickly the shooting had affected the kids.  It seemed that time had passed in fits and starts since Mr. P departed.  He realized that he was shaking a bit at the news himself, becoming more aware of how it was hitting him.  He was glad that Mr. P’s explanation to the kids had been clear and concise – the news had been served up in digestible pieces, which in a way was also a good way for Paul to hear the stunning story.  Though there were signs of edginess in the room, there was no panic – and that credit all goes to Mr.Pacetti’s firm and sensitive explanation.

A bit of shuffling came from the fourth graders.  Tina Jacobs, one of the taller girls in the class, had been watching out the window.  She was the first to see Mr. P’s car returning to the school, announcing it to all.  Most of the students moved to the window to see for themselves.  A few stayed in their desks – some because they didn’t understand the excitement, some because they did.

Coming next week: Chapter 3 – The Radio