SHAKEN TO THE CORE
Its November 22, 1963. I am a Freshman in high school sitting in French class when I see my sister through the glass windows of the classroom door. She is crying. I don’t ask if I can leave. I simply gather my things, stand up, and walk out the door. I am sure something has happened to my mom or dad.
My sister says, “President Kennedy has been shot.”
I loved President Kennedy. I loved watching him play football on the south lawn with his brothers. I loved how he inspired people to walk fifty miles to get healthy. I loved when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” I loved the Peace Corps and wanted to join when I was older.
“We need to pray,” my sister says. We pray, there in the hall.
As President of the Student Council, my sister knows before any other student in the school. We go to the office and stand in the doorway that leads to the back of the auditorium. We watch the students file into the auditorium and wait for an announcement from the principal. They don’t know. We do.
From the radio in the principal’s office we hear the announcement, “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1:00 p.m. Central Standard Time.” My sister and I are inconsolable. Someone in the office says, “Why don’t you two go on home.”
Home is across the big green past the buildings of Centre College of Kentucky where my dad teaches. We cross Main Street. Dad sees us coming and meets us on the sidewalk in front of our house. He hugs us and says, “I haven’t been this shocked since FDR died.”
“But Roosevelt was sick,” I say.
“Yes, but we expected him to live forever.”
My innocence died that day. Assassinations happen in other countries, not mine. Assassinations happen in history, not in my time. That assassination shook me to the core.
Fast forward almost two decades. During those twenty years the world saw disaster and tragedy: the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the ravages of the Vietnam War, Watergate and the resignation of Nixon, the murder of John Lennon, untold famine, poverty, and war around the world. All that angered and saddened me. None of it shook me to the core.
It’s 1984. My son digs in the garden in our house in Tennessee. He finds a Liberty Head dime. He asks about the dime. We compare it to the Roosevelt dime. I tell him the story about the day Kennedy was assassinated and how my dad told me he had not been that shocked since Roosevelt died. My son looks at me puzzled and says, “Why would he be shocked? It was just an assassination.”
That comment shook me to the core. Were the children of the world so callous that assassinations were deemed commonplace? Did they blindly accept war, death, tragedy? Was the world so heartbreaking that their innocence also died?
Almost two more decades pass. During those twenty years, much happened: The Challenger explosion, Rodney King as a symbol of police brutality, the Oklahoma City bombing, the shooting at a high school in Columbine. Those events made me sad, incredulous, and outraged, but they didn’t shake me to the core.
It’s September 2001. I turn on the TV to check the news. I see that one of the World Trade Center Buildings is on fire, hit by an airplane. Not long after, I see a plane fly into the second tower. Soon the two towers fall.
I clue myself to the TV. Can’t see enough. Can’t absorb enough. Everywhere people look as shocked as I feel.
Ten days later, I go to New York City to see the first baseball game played there since the Twin Towers fell. My brother, who lives in the city, is waiting for me. We hug and I realize how huge this event was, how every person in that stadium feels the pain I feel.
9/11 shook me to the core.
Fast forward another two decades. During that time, much tragedy happened: Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans, invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the murder of young children in Newtown, CT, shootings at Parkland. One event after another, not unexpected. I am again saddened and angry, but not surprised.
It is May, 2020. I press play on a video that comes through my Facebook feed. For eight and a half minutes I watch a police officer with his neck on a black man, finally killing him. George Floyd’s murder shook me to the core and led me to join masses of people during a pandemic to demand racial justice. Would this finally be the event that forces our country to look at systemic racism and policing policies that target people of color?
It’s January 6, 2021. A mob of insurrectionists storms the Capitol, attempts a coup against the government of the United States. They do it because the 45th President of the United States feeds them lies about the election of November 3. He feeds them lies, they believe him, and they act. The actions of that day shook me to the core.
I was fourteen years old when Kennedy died, the first time an event shook me to the core. It took two decades for me to feel that same torment again with my son’s comment about assassinations. Almost two more decades until 9/11. Another two decades until George Floyd’s murder. Shaken to the core every two decades, enough time to absorb, enough time to adapt, enough time to figure out I still have to go forward a day at a time, enough time to figure out how to do that. But this time? I didn’t have two decades to get my bearings again. I had eight months. It isn’t enough time.
I know our democracy is flawed, that our criminal justice system is flawed, that our country is grounded in systemic racism. I know there is poverty, hunger, homelessness, and war. I know that money controls power. I always believed, however, that if I used my voice, if we used our voices, if we spoke truth to power, things would slowly get better. Now I’m not so sure.
I am heartsick.