Recollections of Miss Lassiter
[ fiction - january 11 ]
The morning began like any other, even though there was a certain electricity in the air. To be honest, I barely slept the night before, but I didn't tell that to my second grade students. What I told them was that they would be witnessing a very special, very significant event. How could I have possibly known we were about to be pasted into a page of history?
I lived four miles east of Lakeland Starr Elementary School. Every morning at seven thirty, Monday through Friday, I caught a ride with my friend and colleague Jocelyn Cook who taught third grade at the same school. She lived two blocks from me and loved to tool around in her snazzy, cherry-red Studebaker convertible. I, on the other hand, was an abnormally nervous driver and would grab any excuse to avoid getting behind the wheel.
Jocelyn idolized the British model Jean Shrimpton and spent much too much time trying to copy her sophisticated, cutting-edge style. She dressed the way the Shrimp dressed (that was the model's nickname, the Shrimp) and applied her make-up in the same bold fashion. One morning Jocelyn pulled her hair into a side ponytail because that's how the Shrimp had been photographed for Life magazine. On our drive to school, I warned her that this style could be deemed inappropriate for the classroom.
(I didn't share the fact that it was inappropriate for any female over fifteen, Miss Shrimpton excepted.) Sure enough our conservative principal Mr Frischling called her into his office. Five minutes later, she zoomed into the faculty lounge to restyle the ‘do.
On that November morning, it wasn't Jocelyn who dressed like she was heading to a special event. It was me who put on a white Chanel suit with white gloves and a strand of pearls given to me by my father on my twenty-first birthday. I also wore three silver bracelets, and I slipped into a pair of brand new, gorgeous nineteen dollar patent
leather pumps. "Good morning, Miss Cook," I said in the voice of a third grader as I climbed into Jocelyn's car. (This was our daily ritual.) She responded with a childlike "Good morning, Miss Lassiter," a smoldering cigarette dangling from her ruby lips. Then she added, in her adult voice, "You don't figure on walking eleven blocks in those heels, do you, hon?" I hadn't thought about potential foot pain. When we got to school, I changed into a pair of flats I kept in the classroom closet.
Jocelyn and I were the only teachers planning to take their students on a field trip that autumn day. We were joined by six additional adults (three for each class). The parents of every student had signed a consent slip, and the kids, of course, relished any excuse to take a break from book reports and science projects.
At eleven thirty, we gathered in front of the school building. The weather couldn't have been more ideal: sunshine, warm breeze, not a cloud in the clear, pale blue sky. After breaking into small groups (four students and one adult), we held hands while briskly strolling down one block after the next. Clusters of Texans excitedly moved alongside us, behind us, in front of us. In the distance, I could see a sizeable crowd gathering. "Hold hands tightly," I reminded the kids.
We were getting close to Dealey Plaza; that's when the adrenaline started to pump. By the time we arrived, hundreds had lined up along Elm Street, many carrying cameras, some with babies in their arms. Jocelyn and I parked our groups under a large tree where we would have a clear view of the President of the United States as his car passed by.
We huddled together, enjoying the smell of freshly mowed grass that hung in the air like a mist. At exactly 12:30, the energy in the air dramatically changed, as if some seismic event had occurred. All eyes turned left, and the motorcade came into view. The first car we saw was a white Ford occupied by four brawny guys. Following the Ford was a black Lincoln Continental convertible. In the back seat, unmistakably, were Jack and Jackie. What struck me was the president's hair, his not-quite-brown head of hair that in the bright afternoon sunlight took on a reddish glow, almost crimson. Even from a distance I could see that President Kennedy was smiling. To his left was Jackie, the epitome of elegance in her rose pink suit and pillbox hat. All too soon there was another car, then another, then another. The president had disappeared from our sight, but his magic lingered.
When the first shot rang out, I thought it was a firecracker. Nothing more than an annoyance. Then the second one came followed by the third. It only took another second for the reality to sink in. Jocelyn grabbed my arm. "What just happened?" she asked. My first impulse was to yell, "Get down, everyone! Down on the ground!"
People began running in all directions like horses set free from a burning stable. "The president was shot!" a woman shouted. I felt as if I'd been punched in the stomach by Sonny Liston.
"We have to get them out of here," Jocelyn said to me, her voice quivering. "All right, everyone," I called out. "We're going to stand up and walk very quickly, holding hands. Is that clear?" The sea of little heads, their eyes glowing with trust and obedience, nodded up and down.
We began the long trek back. Strangers on the street were sobbing. Some leaned against stores and buildings in stunned silence. Making it to the end of every flat city block seemed like reaching the top of a mountain. When a street was under our belt, it felt like a small victory, but the next one loomed ahead. With aching ankles I surged along, adrift in a sea of concrete. I didn't stop to light a cigarette like Jocelyn did with an unsteady hand. My necklace threatened to choke me, so without missing a step I removed it and put it in my purse along with my bracelets.
When our school finally revealed itself, a blur of brick and glass in the distance, it appeared as a fuzzy mirage, a busy ant colony with a scattering of adults darting in and
out of the building. Those coming out were holding the hands of small children. Mr Frischling, waiting for us on the wide front steps, appeared wan and shaken. "We've called all parents and we're sending the children home," the principal told me with an expression as solemn as I had ever seen.
Life took a hairpin turn on that November afternoon and proceeded in an uncomfortable new direction. If the world had been viewed in pleasing, pretty soft-focus, now the picture was raw and brutally frank. We never talked about any of it. In 1963, the term post-traumatic stress disorder didn't exist. But we were all afflicted, every one of us who woke up that morning, made our way over to Elm Street and witnessed history.
I finished out the school term. Then I moved north, took a teaching job in Seattle. I didn't wait for Dallas to reclaim its bold, proud identity. I had lost some of my own.
In 1970, I married Daniel Sloan. My students called me Mrs Sloan but in my heart I was Miss Lassiter. Something inside me froze on that November day in ‘63. It froze in time and would prevent me from moving forward in a complete way. I would always be a little anxious about what each morning had in store. I knew it was possible for a beautiful day to turn dark and ugly in the blink of an eye.
Jocelyn and I kept in touch for a time. A letter every few months segued into a letter once a year, and they got progressively incoherent. She married a stockbroker, then a doctor, then a businessman. Then she moved to Atlanta, and that was the last I heard from her. Every Christmas I received a holiday card from Mr Frischling. In December of '84 he included a note inside the card, informing me that Jocelyn had taken her own life. The news hit me hard.
I close my eyes and I'm there. I can feel the warm air and smell the grass. I see the people; I hear the shots. Then I open my eyes and remind myself how many decades it's been, and I wonder if anyone else relives that afternoon with such gut-wrenching clarity. I wonder if anyone else dreads the month of November the way I do. And I wonder if I might've retained a sense of wonder about the world and its surprises if this event hadn't happened.
I've seen the world at its best, and at its worst. This very old lady takes nothing for granted.