This late autumn, my classes are writing about President Obama’s 2008 speech, “A More Perfect Union,” sometimes called the “race” speech. The speech touches on three aspects of American cultural life that are often described as taboo subjects for polite conversation: race, religion, and politics. Yet if we are to succeed as writers beyond the basics, moving out of our comfort zones can often help to push us forward. I do not offer such advice easily or happily. Instead, I offer it from memory.
I remember that first moment of moving outside of my comfort zone in an overcast November afternoon light fifty years ago. The streets were filled with children walking away from the school on a brisk late autumn afternoon. I remember that afternoon light and I remember walking in that crowd of children, all of us chattering away. The school had dismissed our afternoon Kindergarten class early, and the older students also had early dismissal. Indeed, the school had closed much earlier than usual and with no warning at all. The President was dead. All of us walking home on that catastrophic afternoon instantly became part of a moment that many of us, fifty years later, cannot find the language to describe.
Indeed, as Adam Clymer suggested in the New York Times, 26% of Americans alive today were at least five years old on November 22, 1963. Clymer collected people’s memories of that day, and suggests that many of us who were younger remember most “the vivid effect on our parents and teachers.” The New York Public Library offers a collection of memories on its Facebook page. The memory-writers use words like “stunned, upset, devastating, unbelievable” to try to capture a time frozen in horror for so many of us.
President Kennedy’s assassination was the signature literacy event of my Kindergarten year, the first event I remember that connected me to the world outside my home, outside my extended family, outside my school, and outside my community. Yet I understand that children my age who grew up in Washington D.C. may have experienced such literacy events earlier in 1963, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, or children from Birmingham, Alabama may count as their first literacy the Children’s Crusade, or the Klan bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that assassinated four young girls little more than two months before President Kennedy succumbed to that bullet in Dallas, Texas.
I also realize that children my age living in Prince Edward County, Virginia did not share with me the privilege of beginning Kindergarten that year. Their town refused to follow desegregation laws. Instead, the town closed the public schools, and private schools were set up for white children. 26% of all people alive on November 22, 1963 were alive on a day when separate and unequal still held sway across our country. As we remember Camelot, we need as well to remember the suffering of those of us who were denied the keys to the kingdom—and the consequences that all of us face fifty years afterward.
Each of us who remembers that terrible day remains bound to a collective moment of US history that seems to have taken place only yesterday. Our failures can offer a bracing humility that can remind us of the struggles of our students. None of us can easily find the language to articulate the most difficult moments of our lives, even as we may have spilled many words in our attempts. But we have to try. We owe our students the patience and compassion that comes from owning our struggles. Resilient triumph may not evolve naturally from such struggle, but we must begin somewhere, even as we move out of our comfort zones and into the light.