In my mind I can see my mother, a freshman at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Dressed in an orange skirt and blouse, her red hair had just the right volume at the top and flip at the bottom. She was leaning against the wall near the front of the classroom when her professor walked in, face stricken.
“The President has been shot,” he told the class. “Go home.”
I’ve heard that story countless times in my life. My mother never forgot exactly where she was the day John F. Kennedy was shot. “It’s like it happened yesterday,” or “If I close my eyes I’m right back in that classroom,” she’d say.
I never understood it.
Then in 1999, two boys marched through the halls of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., amassing a body count. I thought it was my generation’s JFK assassination. I vaguely remember where I was when I heard about it. I happened to be a freshman in college at the time. But sadly, that school shooting turned out to be a horrific precursor to many more. Somehow, the echo of gunshots ringing through the halls of schools doesn’t sound the same as those three shots that rang out that fateful Friday afternoon in Dallas 50 years ago.
For me, that changed last December when a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. and killed 20 first-graders and six staff members. I remember that day well. I pulled my kids out of school. Not because I was fearful for their safety, but because the overwhelming sadness segued into thankfulness that I was able to walk my kids off their campus that day.
I remember hearing retail statistics at the end of 2012; numbers were down, people were shopping less. Among the reasons people gave — sadness over the Sandy Hook killings. That tragedy transcended generations — like the assassination of JFK — and impacted every aspect of people’s lives across America.
However, my lifetime’s JFK assassination is Sept. 11, 2001. I will always remember where I was that morning. I remember details, like my mom did about learning of Kennedy’s shooting. I can recall what I was wearing, and where I was standing as I watched news coverage. I can remember the shocked faces of fellow commuters as our eyes met through car windows.
My four children were all born after 9/11. They never knew the world pre-attack. I didn’t know the world before JFK was killed, but my mom did. She didn’t know what life was like before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but my grandparents did.
I worry about my kids, what horrible atrocity will come in their lifetime. A horrific scene that will play out when they’re old enough to remember it, but hopefully too innocent to comprehend it. None of them know many details about what happened in Newtown. I know they don’t remember it well enough to recount it to their own children, except to say it happened in their lifetime. They occasionally ask about “those planes with bad guys that flew into buildings,” but they only know what they’re told.
Sometimes I feel my nerves wound tight, waiting for that thing that’s going to take a little bit of their innocence, their naivety. I worry too much, I know, about how we’ll talk to them and explain to them that it’s okay to be sad and confused and how, admittedly, we have no answers. People — myself included — often say that things were easier years ago, that things like Columbine, Sept. 11 and Sandy Hook wouldn’t have happened five decades ago. But every generation is marred by some awful event. I wish it wasn’t that way, but it is.
I have read many accounts this week of people who were alive when our 35th president was assassinated. Kennedy’s death impacted and forever changed them. They also lived through amazing, life-changing joys. Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, the demolition of the Berlin Wall (I remember that), the end of apartheid , the election of the first black president of the United States of America, and so many more good things.
So when the kids ask about the ugly, I’ll redirect them to focus on the beauty. We’ll pay our respects to those who were taken too soon, but then we have to look to the beautiful things that happen each day. It’s too hard to live in expectation of something awful.