Photo: Hank Walker
School was almost out for the year, but the morning had dawned brisk, and a little chilly. By lunchtime, though, the day turned warm. I pushed up the sleeves of my green Garland sweater, wishing I’d chosen something lighter for school that day.
The tall wooden windows in Mr. VanderVen’s room stood wide open as we filed in for English class. The air hung still; the room smelled like sweaty seventh graders and chalk. I took my place in the back row, sliding into the wooden desk and stacking my books on the wire rack underneath the seat. I took out a pencil and fresh piece of notebook paper, but we didn’t have much homework to review.
My mom always said I was lucky to have Mr. VanderVen for English. His wife taught for years at the same school where my mom worked, so they were part of the “teacher network” that existed around town. Mr. VanderVen was one of the classics – sort of a local legend. He made sure that we learned to diagram a sentence, use proper parts of speech, and memorized poetry. In fact, it’s only because of Mr. VanderVen that I ever learned a single word by Robert Browning, but I still remember this one:
The year’s at the spring
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hillside’s dew pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn:
God’s in His heaven –
All’s right with the world!
That day, so close to the end of the year, a lot of teachers let formal lesson planning slide. Mr. VanderVen was no exception, and he opened up the floor to discussion. There was a lot going on in the news; the Detroit Tigers were off to a great start in ‘68. He challenged one of the girls on the other side of the room to name the Tigers first baseman. She grinned for a split second before replying, “Al Kaline.” He laughed.
And the night before, Bobby Kennedy had been shot in Los Angeles. We all remembered the King assassination, just weeks before. Most of us had been third graders when President Kennedy was killed, and we watched Lee Harvey Oswald die on our black and white TV screens. Ours was the first generation, I guess, that grew up measuring time by assassinations. Our TV violence was the real life stuff that would become contemporary history.
I sat next to a girl named Mary. For a while, she spelled her name Merri, which allowed her to dot the “i” with a heart. Mary/Merri reached into her purse and offered me a piece of Juicy Fruit – forbidden contraband in those days at Central Junior High. More importantly, though, she tipped her purse just enough so I could see the corner of a transistor radio inside. As Mr. VanderVen talked on about the Tigers, Mary/Merri slipped the plastic earpiece out of her purse and clicked the radio on. She wiggled in her chair to pull in a better signal from WKNR 1340; we were fortunate to sit near those windows or there would be no signal at all.
Suddenly, Mary’s head jerked up. The earpiece fell to the ground, making a telltale rattling sound. She didn’t care. She blurted out, “They said Bobby’s ok.”