Thanksgiving was approaching that November of 1963.
During Beginning Spanish class, Senora De la Pena jubilantly orchestrates our usual repeat-after-me sentences, like: “Me llamo es _____.” First, we repeat in unison, sounding like an enthusiastic but way-off-key choir. Then Senora waltzes through the aisles and with a graceful wave of her slender index finger points at one of us to solo.
When it’s my turn, I declare in a phony-sounding Spanish accent, “Me llamo es Ricardo,” trying futilely to trill my r’s. I love how Senora’s voice and accompanying gestures urge us to recite so confidently and majestically as she sweeps her arms across her body and over and around her wavy black hair, like she’s conjuring our words to float magically back toward her. And her vibrant outfits! Amalgamations of indigos, magentas, royal blues, honeydews and lemon yellows clash dramatically with her turquoise and silver jewelry and one of her many beautiful gossamer shawls. On this day Senora wears the purple one.
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, our teacher also has us take turns proclaiming: “Estoy agradecio por ____” (“I am thankful for ______”). If we don’t know the Spanish word for what makes us grateful, she helps out. Most kids opt for the predictable mi perro, mi gato, mis amigos, mi familia. Heckie, the class wiseacre, says: “Estoy agradecio por Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy.”
Senora doesn’t miss a beat. “Ah! Bonomo’s Chicloso Turco, mi querido nino.”
I want to offer a zany word, so she will smile and call me her dear boy, too.
But it doesn’t happen.
That’s because the intercom static that always precedes an announcement crackles to life. But instead of Principal Ellis, we hear the slightly quivering voice of a radio broadcaster. Even a 12-year-old can tell he’s clinging to his composure as he describes Mrs. Kennedy grabbing the president and Catholic priests arriving at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. We wait anxiously for Senora to tell us what’s happening. Instead, she walks into the hallway, then returns and collapses into her chair. Principal Ellis has switched off the broadcast, and he directs our teachers to “detain us” in our classrooms even after the dismissal bell. Staring at Senora, all we need is for her reassure us this isn’t really happening.
Instead we watch her weep.
Senora rises unsteadily and summons us to stand and fold our hands like her. She recites what must have been a prayer in Spanish. Soon after, Principal Ellis instructs teachers to release all students to their next class.
You might remember that school was canceled across the nation the following Monday. I spent it worrying about the whys, what-ifs and what-nows.
But upon our return to school after those grim days of mourning, something happened for which I have been forever thankful.
Senora greets each one of us at her classroom door with a hug. She’s dressed in her usual blend of exotic colors. Today her gossamer shawl is white. She isn’t her usual over-the-top exuberant self, but it’s obvious she’s determined to smile and encourage us to do the same.
We’re heartened when she revives our individual “Estoy agradecio por …” proclamations, the ones that had been interrupted so cruelly a few days before. Even to her junior high horde of chronically confused pre-adolescents, Senora’s message is clear: Despite unnerving and calamitous events that inevitably blindside our individual and collective lives, we will persevere, alone and together. Life goes on.
Dick Schwartz, of Minneapolis, is a retired teacher.