If we survive long enough, we experience moments of awareness that we’re living through history. For our parents, it was Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima. For my generation, it was the Kennedy assassination.
I was in high school history class, ironically, when we learned Kennedy had died from gunshots to the head. Miss Rudnicki was skinny, gangly, with bucked teeth and bad skin. She was a stern teacher and, I thought, heartless. As she dictated quiz questions on the previous night’s reading, a chapter I hadn’t read, an announcement came over the intercom that the President was dead. Miss Rudnicki stopped the quiz, put her head down on her desk, and wept. School was canceled for the day. I don’t recall other details except being home and watching events unfold on our small TV screen. But a thousand times I’ve relived the scene of Miss Rudnicki crying, and I never neglected another homework assignment for her class.
Twenty years ago, we lived history again when planes crashed into New York’s Twin Towers and Washington’s Pentagon. I was in high school then, too, teaching English in Vermont. As with the other events, there was a sense that we were in a dream from which we would awaken at any moment. Watching the news on the big screen in the school auditorium felt more like playing a video game than witnessing the reality of the attack.
In front of a Vermont police station, citizens of the town erected a rusted section of one of the tower’s beams as a memorial to the three thousand who died in the attack. That bent metal is testament to the reality of the 9-11 event. I’ve visited the warehouse in Dallas from where Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fatal bullet. I’ve stood on the grassy knoll and looked for the mysterious man on the railroad tracks. I may not know who actually killed Kennedy, but visiting Dallas convinced me that his death was not fabricated.
As the nation acknowledges these historical events, I realize that the past could repeat itself in some form at any moment. What’s important to remember is that history is happening all around us—no video games, no doctored images on a screen, no fantasy of some demented mind, but reality.
Prepare for the worst and hope for the best, Maya Angelou said. I’d add that the worst is bound to happen, but I’m focusing every breath on expecting the best.