I was in Miss Bromley’s art class, which was simultaneously the best and worst 45 minutes of the school week. The best because it was the last period of the week, and the weekend began as soon as the bell rang. The worst because . . . well, because Miss Bromley. If there was a kid in the school who enjoyed the company of Miss Bromley, I’m still waiting for a hand to go up.
Miss Bromley had some sort of handicap. She dragged a leg while she walked, and we all enjoyed making fun of her because what’s the point of being 13 years old if you can’t act like an insensitive jerk? As I recall, Haynes and Ruby did the best Miss Bromley impression. The rest of us laughed. We all knew it was wrong and cruel, but hell . . . we were 13. And besides, it was Miss Bromley.
Miss Bromley’s art class consisted of about 35 minutes of trying to act like you were paying attention and gave a damn, followed by 10 minutes of cleaning up the mess you’d made with construction paper and paint and chalk and pencil and charcoal and stuff. We got graded on all of this, and we all understood there was a chance that someday some college admissions guy would look at our transcript and ask how we screwed up Eighth Grade Art, so we actually had to pretend to make an effort. But it was really, really hard, because . . . well, because Miss Bromley.
On this particular Friday we were all doing our best to look like we cared when Adrienne and Lisa, a couple of ninth graders, burst into the room and asked Miss Bromley if they could borrow her radio. Now Adrienne and Lisa were the last people in the school who were going to get Miss Bromley’s radio, because they had reputations. Wild childs. Everyone was certain they’d been to second base – maybe even third base, in our 13-year-old wild imaginations – and for sure those two ninth-grade girls just wanted to listen to WMCA or WABC or WINS or some other godforsaken station that was going to play rock ‘n’ roll music and set their loins on fire. Another ninth grader – maybe Claire or Susan – might get their hands on Miss Bromley’s radio, but most definitely not Adrienne and Lisa.
Miss Bromley turned down their request, but Adrienne and Lisa were persistent. They wanted to listen to the news, they said, because . . .
President Kennedy’s been shot.
And just like that, for the first time in the last half hour, we were all paying attention.
Miss Bromley shooed Adrienne and Lisa out the door because Adrienne and Lisa and Miss Bromley. And then Miss Bromley turned on the radio. And we all listened to the reporter describing how the president had been shot. In the head. And how he was being rushed to the hospital, and how the first lady was covered in blood, and that the governor of Texas was also shot, and that they were hunting for the shooter or shooters. And that a place called Dealey Plaza in a city called Dallas was in chaos. And we heard the words “grassy knoll.” And we were told that people were sobbing. Wailing.
And we were eighth graders, and we went into shock. Because we all knew, immediately, that our lives were being changed forever by events taking place somewhere far away.
Our parents had told us all about Pearl Harbor. This was our Pearl Harbor.
There must have been about 10 of us in the classroom, and what’s the appropriate response when you’ve just been told the president of the United States has been shot in the head? A few gasps. I think I heard some crying. Most of the others just sat there, stunned, silent.
And I picked up a broom and started sweeping the floor, and I don’t think it was because that’s what we always did when there were 10 minutes left before the bell. I was doing it because I needed to do something. I needed to be in motion. That’s just me.
And then Miss Bromley did something for which I’ll never forgive her. She announced to the rest of the class, “Look at Stephen. He’s sweeping the floor. You’re all supposed to be cleaning up now.”
As if mine was the appropriate response, the way all 13 year olds should act. Look at Stephen, all you others who are in shock and feel unable to move. Why can’t you be like Stephen? Why aren’t you cleaning up?
Memo to Miss Bromley, 50 years later . . .
Thanks for nothing.
There are many ways to react to shocking news, probably as many ways as there are people. My way was neither right nor wrong. It was just my way. I needed to do something and there was a broom at hand.
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