Forty-six years ago today was a Friday. Not a rainy day in Beverly — but I was indoors. In Mrs. Knowlton’s room, I think. Fourth grade, at Shore’s Lower School. It was afternoon. Not all the usual people were present. We weren’t in class, but we were doing something “schoolish” and organized, just not the usual work. There were perhaps 7 or 8 children in the room. And an adult, but I don’t think it was Mrs. Knowlton.
It might have been Mrs. O’Connor. Irene O’Connor, who was mild and sweet and taught third grade, and who — two years later — would have to go away and take a rest cure for a year after my brother and his buddies came through. Mrs. Knowlton was, by contrast, formidable. No rest cure for her, or for anyone near her. Long kilt skirts — pleated, plaid and secured with a large steel kilt pin. She wore loafers with great fringed tongues. I remember those shoes. She wore stockings. Her hair was grey and wavy to her chinline. A palisade of thin dark creases hatched across her upper lip when she was stern.
Someone came to the door. Was it Miss Walker? Or perhaps someone from Miss Walker’s office? Miss Walker was Head of Lower School. She wore glasses, suits and a heavy-lidded, skeptical expression much of the time. Her secretary kept cotton balls and a big blue glass bottle of stinging antiseptic in a glass-doored supply cupboard along with the blank mimeo sheets and the notepads.
Those white notepads…Kids could buy them at the school store. There was a little “store” on the second floor of the white Winslow building. Under a stair. A tiny office suite, really, with a dutch door. You could go there after lunch and buy things: pens, pencils, tablets. And those note pads. And those red-and-blue correcting pencils the teachers used to mark our homeworks. A large, friendly bald man with a smallish head ran that store. He had the same last name as some kids in the school, but he was not related to them. Foster? Was it Mr. Foster? I’m sure he liked his job. You could tell. He was always smiling and cheery. We all liked him.
Our halls. I knew that whole campus as well as my own home. I went to school there for 10 years. Ten years! I loved that school. Not every day, of course. But always.
Someone came to the room and said, from the door frame, that the President had died. I don’t remember what happened next. In memory, that afternoon in the classroom dissolves into a mid-morning, in our TV room, on the rug before the (brand new) color television, watching the cortege with Lincoln’s caisson pass under the autumnal elms. I remember the thin black charger with the empty saddle and the empty boots turned backwards in the stirrups, pulling on his lead, and the handsome uniformed solder holding him in place. Everything else I can call to mind about those days comes from things preserved by others, things I have seen since then, the iconic images repeated and repeated like a catechism of our national heritage. But that specific memory, the one of the horse, is mine.