Monday, January 19, 2009


Looking back, 1968 was when I stopped being a child.

I was in 8th grade that year, at Hubbard Trail Junior High, in Crete, Illinois, just outside Chicago -- a clueless 13 year old. Events would take place that year -- terrible events -- that rocked our society and would force me to stop seeing the world through innocent eyes.

The first of these was the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968.

At the time, I still lived in a community largely uninhabited by people who were not white. In fact, despite the segregation that still gripped the south where I was born, I had much more exposure to African-Americans growing up in as a young child in Texas.

On April 5th, the day after Dr. King's assassination, our usually wise-cracking U.S. Government teacher (or was it history?--memory fails me here) dropped his lesson plans and instead poured out his despair over the soul of a nation where such a heinous act could take place.

As I listened, I realized this made as little sense to him -- and by extension, all other adults -- as it did to me.

I probably learned -- really learned -- more about our troubled nation that day than I had in all the other social studies classes I'd ever taken before.

In 1963, I'd lived through the national trauma of the Kennedy assassination, but I was 9 then, and still not quite able to grasp the enormity of the event. This was different.

I was now on the verge of that awful responsibility adults have of making sense out of senseless things.

In the months that followed, Robert Kennedy would die, and scenes would flood our televisions from Grant Park in nearby Chicago, showing baton-wielding Chicago cops and clouds of tear gas during the Democratic National Convention.

There would be many events in the years that followed that shaped my politics and outlook on life, but none as much as the events of 1968.

Which is why, on Election night, the sight of Barack Obama addressing the crowd of cheering celebrants in that same Grant Park in Chicago filled me with such hope, joy and awe.


Dan Brekke said...

Mr. Bill Simpkins. Eight-grade American history. His honesty and straightforwardness and willingness to question the world as it was was extraordinary.

I remember that day as well and the callous reaction on the part of some of our classmates. In fact, I've been regaling friends and acquaintances with the story of how my brother John and I went down to the office on the day of King's funeral to ask that the flag be lowered to half-staff; I think the president had issued a proclamation about that. We didn't get anywhere with the principal or vice principal, who did allow us to call our mom, who came and took us out of school. We spent the day watching the funeral on TV.

So, yes, like you, I'm filled with awe and something like hope.

Dr Ralph said...

Dan, your remark proves again the difference an extraordinary teacher can make in the lives of those he or she touches.

I think this is how immortality works.