I am not usually a scene setter in my story telling tomes. For some reason, there is no way that I can describe this part of my life without giving you some sort of background.
I had taught in NYC schools for two years and then married my sweetheart of three years in the summer of 1963. Carol had been going to Beaver College in suburban Philly for those three years and I spent my weekends travelling down to see her. All of that was ending as we moved into a small apartment a few miles from her school.
I was lucky enough to find a job close to where we lived and very close to Beaver College. Carol had one year to go before graduating and getting her teacher’s certificate. I got a job in the Cheltenham School District teaching 8th grade English and social studies. Eventually, I taught at the Thomas Williams Junior High School for three years.
If you look for that building on Church road, you will not see it there. It was torn down in the late 60’s to make way for a new Cedarbrook Junior High School.
As I look back at those years, I am pleased to report that they were very happy. Other than the fact that, in the first year, we lived as paupers. I was making 4,800 dollars and we counted every penny. I mean we actually counted every penny. I still have the log book in which we wrote down every single expense.
The students of Thomas Williams Junior High School included children from ancient monied WASPS and newly minted Jewish Wealth. It was a good combination along with some kids from the other side of the tracks. They were a ball to teach. You could kid around with them and get them to study things that no other students that I had later would want to do.
Once I told them that I was not going to be teaching the battles of World War I. They were disappointed. “You mean no Baron Von Richthofen?” How many students anywhere today would rightly point to the Red Baron’s real name? They all suggested that they take a piece of WWI and do a project on it. I was astounded and certainly allowed them to do it.
Can you imagine the research that went on in the library and more probably at home in an era without the internet? The projects were amazing and we were asked to present them in front of the whole school. They were a success,
The faculty, other than my friend John, was a crew of kind of ordinary folks, not given to friendships or discussions in the faculty room. They were not distant. They just were not there. They consisted of people like Sleepy John, who was unaware of a student masturbating in his class. There was Jim, the art teacher, who personified the gay artist and also had five children. There was Kay who had her children help her when she laid her head on the desk and complained about being sick. There was Herb, the math teacher, who kept his windows open in the dead of winter to keep people on their toes. There was Big Ted who taught Phys Ed and taught the kids some other things. Who knew that John, the assistant principal was banging the Home Ec. teacher at lunch time? Then there was Bill the snitch who reports all happenings in the school to the Dragon Lady who ran the secondary schools.
Finally, there came Ernie, the principal. Ernie was a tall Ichabod Crane looking guy who was a deacon in his church. He played everything close to the vest and rarely said anything more than good morning. I felt his wrath one day when he observed my class. He said nothing to me about how things went, but his written observation was even more commanding. It read, “Mr. Hillman had prepared his lesson well. Students seemed to be paying attention. However, one should not take the lord’s name in vain by saying, “God, Bob, cut that out.”
Ernie is a major player in the November 22nd 1963 tableau. I will now tell you that my birthday is November 22nd. When I awoke that morning, I was 25 years old. Carol had promised me a chocolate cake for dessert and much merry making. I was kind of looking forward to it. It was my first birthday as a married man. It was a good day. It was also a Friday, so that we could so some other birthday kinds of things on our limited budget.
As usual we got up, we ate breakfast, and I drove Carol to school and got to work soon after. I actually did not have one single room that I could call my own. I had to drag a book cart and other materials around to a few different rooms. At lunch time there was some news about the President landing at the airbase outside of Dallas and driving into the city. Frankly, I did not pay too much attention to it. My next class was happening and I had to get myself together and prepare. My next class ended about 1:00. By that time, there were all kinds of rumors about shots being fired at the President’s limo. I perked up my ears to listen. Someone in the school, maybe a few had a transistor radio and there was evidently a plugged in radio somewhere in the building.
My next class was in Jim’s art room. By the time I got there, the students were really nervous looking. I saw one of them with his ear on a small radio plugged into the wall near Jim’s desk. His face had a look of horror and he spoke to the rest of the kids surrounding him. I called to him, “Phillip, turn off the radio and get to you seats everyone.” Phillip complied and said, “Mr Hillman, the president has been shot.” I was dumbfounded. Just at that moment, John, the assistant principal came into the room and beckoned me to the back. “Don’t tell them Arnold, let them find out when they get home.” I answered with a nod. These were the orders of Ernie the principal. I certainly did not want to disobey such an order.
I asked Phillip to turn the radio on, so that we could all hear. I am not sure who did the broadcasting, but at 1:30 the voice was clear for us to hear that JFK was dead. I then told Phillip to turn off the radio. The students were in shock. I figured that they had so many questions to ask, but did not know if it was o.k. I began by telling them that the progression if a president died was the vice president would then take over. That led to an avalanche of questions.
I still believe that withholding the news would have been a bad thing. Yes, I know that it is the responsibility of the family to take care of such announcements of family deaths and so on. However, this was a nationwide and worldwide occurrence. Parents might have even been happy that it was done. As a matter of fact, I did get a call from a parent thanking me for telling their son in such a way that he understood that everything was going to be o.k.
I left school at the usual time and went to pick up Carol at school. She had already heard the news. There were tears from both of us. Kennedy was our generation’s hero. His election augured better times for all of us. Strange, that it was then Lyndon Johnson who carried out most of JFK’s promises.
There was no birthday celebration that night. There was no chocolate cake. We watched t.v. and saw the nation beginning a period of mourning. One icon had died that day along with two more of our personal icons; C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley. The Day the Icons Died.