His name is on the outside of the school and on the bulletin boards and on some of their shirts. Every May they celebrate his birthday. But Friday, with the flag at half-staff outside the John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Jamaica Plain, his death after 50 years still had the power to shock.
The cartoon playing upstairs in Room 204 covered a lot of ground quickly. PT-109, the Peace Corps, Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, civil rights. And then: “President Kennedy was killed in Dallas, Texas, on Nov. 22, 1963. He was riding in an open-topped car when he was shot in the head and neck by a sniper.”
Gasps. The line knocked the wind out of the JFK School third-grade class. At a corner table, three girls slapped their hands to their cheeks. Children stared in disbelief.
The lights came on; the students blinked. The teacher, Heather Anderson, addressed the class. It was part of a series of simultaneous lessons about the 35th president throughout a 50-year-old building that was once going to be known as the Lowell School, when workers that November were putting the finishing touches on it.
In the aftermath of Kennedy’s death, as bridges and parks and airports were renamed for the slain president, the Boston School Committee offered its newest building in tribute. It opened that December.
“What stands out in your mind?” Anderson asked, in a room where few of the 8- and 9-year-olds had parents or, in some cases, even grandparents alive in 1963 and residing in the United States. Four out of five JFK students are Latino. In the main office, a bust of Kennedy sits near a copy of “Abran Paso a los Patitos,” a Spanish translation of Robert McCloskey’s famed picture book about ducklings.
“What’s one thing you learned from the video that you didn’t know before about JFK?”
A girl raised her hand. “He talked with Cuba, out of missiles.”
Right, the teacher said. “Cuba and the Soviet Union were almost at war with the United States, and he helped prevent that from happening. Something else? Josh?”
“That he got shot in the neck and the head,” Josh said.
“You didn’t know that, that he was shot?” she asked, sweetly.
Josh shook his head. Almost everyone else did, too.
A boy named Zion raised his hand. “I didn’t know that the one that killed — the assassin that killed John F. Kennedy — that he got killed, too.”
Anderson tried to steer back to Kennedy’s life.
“The reason we’re remembering him today is because he was a really special president.”
Beep-beep-beep-beep-beep. It was 1:30 Eastern Standard Time, the time the shots were fired in Dallas. An announcement crackled over the PA system. “Dear students and staff and guests. At this moment we will hold a moment of silence to celebrate the life of President John F. Kennedy.”
For one minute the class sat gravely still, 19 children in clenched seriousness or solemn contemplation. Then they talked about the civil rights movement. “Do you remember what that was called, when black and white people were separated?”
“Very good, Josh,” Anderson said, reminding them what they had learned about separate water fountains, separate seats on the bus. “JFK, a white man, was really involved in helping Martin Luther King [change] that and getting rights for people.”
But soon the kids were curious again about his death, about who killed him and why.
Anderson guided them back to talk of his life. They oohed and aahed at a photo of Kennedy as a boy, discussed a picture of him in the Navy before his boat was sunk by the Japanese — “What war is this?” and oohed and aahed again at his wedding photo. A hand shot up.
“I see this policeman, looking in a strange way,” the boy said, fixing on a stern-looking officer in the background outside the church in Newport, in 1953. “I think that’s the person who shot him!”
“He does have a suspicious look on his face, but I think that’s a coincidence,” Anderson said, showing a photo of Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, redirecting into a discussion of Cuba, missiles, and what we once called the Soviet Union.
“For 13 days it looked like they might go to war. But then JFK and their leader . . . resolved the conflict peacefully, by doing what thing we’ve been talking about?”
Hands shot up.
“Cooperate?” a girl named Sophia asked.
“OK, cooperating,” Anderson said, “and actually another C word I was thinking of that we’ve been focusing on, too.”
“Communicating!” Zion said.
The teacher smiled. “They communicated and cooperated, and they worked out the problem peacefully so everybody stayed safe without violence.”
Another hand went up. Carlos wanted to know why no one locked up the shooter before he had a chance to kill Kennedy.
“I don’t think people knew he was going to do that,” Anderson said, beginning to tell the class about another C word. But there was little time to talk about the many conspiracy theories about the shooting.
It was 2 p.m., time for math.