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Terry Wooten

I was 15 and in study hall on a Friday afternoon, November 22, 1963. There was one hour and 20 minutes left in the school week.

The superintendent came on the intercom and made an announcement to the whole school. President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas.

A friend and I stared at each other. We were always joking and goofing off, but this was serious. That’s all we knew for the next 10 minutes. A lot of whispering was going on.

Kids were getting back to normal. Maybe Kennedy had only been wounded. Then the office secretary announced over the speakers that the President was dead. Thud. The school hit bottom.

After a few minutes of silence, punctuated by crying sounds, the bell rang. We walked like zombies to our last class.

I met my cousin on the south stairway between the second and third floors. She was crying and we hugged.

My sixth hour was freshman algebra for students who struggled with math. The superintendent was our teacher and didn’t show up. Rumor was he’d broken down at the fatal news. That’s why his secretary made the second announcement.

Nobody was there mentally or spiritually anyway. I can’t remember who tried to teach the class, or where X and Y were that day.

The bus ride home has disappeared in the cobwebs of my mind. The November sky was gray like a funeral shroud over the sun. Our bright yellow bus traveled through the haze into a scary future.

We walked into the house. Mom had the living room lights on, and was ironing clothes while watching the black and white news on TV. Even Jackie Kennedy’s dress was gray. Thirty-eight years later the nation was still healing. I was now conducting performance poetry and writing workshop all over Michigan and the United States.

On September 11, 2001, on my way to Ellsworth Schools, the morning sky was bright blue. Driving towards the burning sunrise it was hard to see. I had a three-day residency with a high school English class, and fifth-graders at the elementary building.

After my first high school session, I headed to the elementary. The D.J. on the radio mentioned they would have more news on the World Trade Center bombing, and then played another song. I turned my Jeep off and walked inside.

Halfway through my fifth-grade session the teacher left the room, and didn’t return until near the end of class. I thought that was strange.

She seemed distraught and asked if I knew about the terrorist attacks. Half of the World Trade Center had collapsed.

I had two hours before my next high school session, so drove around Ellsworth and parked by the community labyrinth listening to the news. It all reminded me of Orson Wells’ radio program, “War of the Worlds,” and when President Kennedy was assassinated.

The high school was in shock. All semblance of routine had ended, but the English teacher insisted I go on with my workshop. That helped restore some normalcy.

For months I refused to write about 9-11. I don’t like dwelling on such vulgar violence. Repeating the evil in a poem would only make it worse.

Then I met Jessica Forsyth at East Bay Elementary, and she told me her story. I wrote the poem that night and sent a copy to the librarian who’d brought me in. Last time I saw Jessica she was attending Kingsley High School, and stopped by the library to say hello.

Poet Bard Terry Wooten has been performing and conducting writing workshops in schools for more than 30 years. He is also the creator of Stone Circle, a triple ring of boulders featuring poetry, storytelling and music on his property north of Elk Rapids. Learn more at www.terry-wooten.com.

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