Each September when the calendar reaches its eleventh day, I silently recount two important events in American history. As attacks of that day – now already seventeen years in the past – replay in my mind, I simultaneously recall the tragedy in Dallas almost four decades earlier, the shock and sadness from both crises inevitably intertwined. Lizzie/Elizabeth, sitting in the exact same high school classroom when she learned of each event, provides details…
On the Friday before Thanksgiving, fish sandwiches and creamed peas had accompanied lunchroom chatter about that night’s record hop – with a real DJ! But now, Lizzie sat in sophomore English, her favorite class and best subject. As she settled in for a grammar lesson, the loudspeaker in the corner crackled to life just as the teacher was explaining participles.
Almost forty years later, a grownup Lizzie – now the teacher Elizabeth – listened to the midmorning buzz of her German 3 kids. Many would be hosting German exchange students slated to arrive in a few days. As Elizabeth teased them about cleaning their rooms, the principal’s voice began emanating from the PA system, filling the classroom with reports of planes crashing into American landmarks in New York City and Washington, DC.
Lizzie had moved on to the gym for PE after hearing without understanding the stunning news that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. She knew about his trip to Texas, but that he had been wounded there seemed impossible. As Lizzie and the other girls waited on the bleachers for the bell, an even more tragic announcement was broadcast.
On this eighth day of the new school year, Elizabeth tried to make sense of what she and her students had just heard. The towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were ablaze in the two cities the German group would visit before arriving in Ohio. Suddenly, her students had more questions than Elizabeth had answers.
The biology teacher in Lizzie’s last period class talked quietly – in his gentle, southern drawl. When the shaken sophomores objected to a scheduled quiz, he explained that part of life was going on when going on seemed impossible.
Students and staff passed Elizabeth’s classroom with dazed expressions and frightened eyes, and a coworker stopped to say a fourth plane might be flying over Ohio. No one, including Elizabeth, could dismiss the close proximity of WPAFB.
Lizzie and her sisters arrived home from a practically-silent bus ride. More than anything, she needed to see her parents after this extraordinary occurrence she could not seem to comprehend. Unfortunately, the girls walked into an empty house, her parents still visiting family friends.
Knowing that Ingrid and her students were scheduled to leave Germany bound for New York in just a couple of days, Elizabeth dialed her friend’s home number from the phone on her desk. Even allowing for the six-hour time difference, Elizabeth was surprised that Ingrid’s husband answered. His first words: “We are so sorry.”
Lizzie watched Channel 7 coverage of the president’s assassination – absent even one commercial break – until the station signed off at midnight. She would never forget the images being broadcast: the motorcade winding through Dallas streets, the search for the perpetrator and the murder of a Dallas policeman, Lee Harvey Oswald surrounded by law enforcement officers.
Elizabeth, trying to make sense of the day’s events, flipped through the thirty-some stations in her cable package. All night long, she watched planes hitting towers that eventually collapsed, obliterated into gray ash covering everyone and everything. Layers of news updates crawled endlessly across the bottom of channels devoid of advertising.
Lizzie heard the newly-sworn President Johnson promise: “I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask for your help – and God’s.” She saw bloodstains on Mrs. Kennedy’s skirt and the haunted expression on Robert Kennedy’s face.
Elizabeth and her colleagues struggled to find an appropriate balance between the events of the previous day and the necessity of moving forward with lessons. Following a difficult, late-night phone conversation with Ingrid, Elizabeth also had to inform her classes and exchange hosts: there would be no visit by the German students.
As thousands of mourners filed sadly past President Kennedy’s casket in the U.S. Capitol, Lizzie stated aloud that she wanted to go to Washington, too. Although Lizzie’s mother skeptically questioned her wish, she spoke with kind understanding in her voice.
Elizabeth had watched thousands of New Yorkers walking and walking and walking home – in the absence of regular commuter traffic. And her heart ached for the emergency personnel working tirelessly and bravely in the area renamed Ground Zero.
People around the world reacted to the tragic events in America. Lizzie thought the people in Germany seemed the saddest, as they tearfully waited to sign condolence books at U.S. consulates in Munich and Berlin.
Elizabeth learned their German partner school had held an assembly the next morning to pray for America. Students then returned to their homerooms to write letters of sympathy to the American school with which they had been linked for 25 years.
Lizzie’s mother brought more disturbing news when she picked up her daughters after church on Sunday: President Kennedy’s assassin had himself been killed by a man who stepped from the crowd during a prison transfer. Lizzie felt more confused than ever.
Elizabeth was shaken to learn that a GHS graduate who worked as a flight attendant had been on the plane that crashed into the South Tower. Elizabeth was also saddened by but proud of the heroic actions by passengers on a fourth plane headed for Washington, passengers who made the ultimate sacrifice for their fellow citizens over a field in Pennsylvania. Elizabeth teared up each time she heard “Let’s roll.”
With schools closed, Lizzie and her sisters observed the national day of mourning at a local church service. Later she watched every minute of the funeral, a blur of unforgettable images: a riderless horse, the flag-draped coffin, the eerie silence broken only by a steady drum beat, Mrs. Kennedy walking with world leaders, a little boy’s salute.
Elizabeth needed many months to come to grips with the events of that September day. Initially, she had busied herself with cancelling field trips booked for the Germans and displaying the condolence letters from their partner school for all to share. It would be a year to the day, however, that she closed her classroom door to finally write a long-overdue letter to the staff and students of the German school. As she wrote, tears streamed down her face – tears for all who had been lost and for all that had been lost one bright September morning.
As a youngster, I often heard adults remembering aloud “where they were” and “what they were doing” when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor – but I never truly understood the import of their reminisces. Years after John Kennedy’s death, I finally came to understand how a singular, defining occurrence could sear itself into the hearts of an entire generation. Following the 2001 attacks, I felt sorrow that many of us had experienced yet another horrific happening. I continue to hope against hope that the children of our children and beyond will never have to witness even one such event.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.