JFK assassination: its evolving hold on the national psyche

Seventh-graders Samantha Block and Julia Ferguson have spent the past few weeks watching videos on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. They've written poems on their feelings about the day that shook their hometown - and the nation - 40 years ago; they've even interviewed people who were alive when Kennedy was killed. And now, after touring the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, they say they kind of get it.

As Dallas's youngest generations learn about the events of Nov. 22, 1963, they are interested - even fascinated - by the day and its details. For Samantha and Julia and the rest of their class, as for older Americans, the question remains the same: Why would someone want to kill the president?

But increasingly, those who mark the anniversary are not old enough to have memories from that late-autumn Friday. The events retain their grip on the national psyche, yet they're viewed through a different, distant lens. For today's kids, JFK's assassination is another hatch mark on America's turbulent timeline - one to be studied, not felt.

Carolyn Hamilton, Samantha and Julia's teacher, was a seventh grader back in 1963. Now, she's an English teacher of seventh graders, and she hears her old question of "why" on her students' minds.

"I don't really know what to tell them," she says, boarding the school bus at the museum. "I just try to explain that it was a national tragedy and everybody was very moved by the events."

But some of it, she says, just can't be taught. The Kennedy assassination has become a story of facts and faces, dates and drama - but there's no textbook to convey the ineffable shock and the fog of grief that followed, no instructional film to mimic the strangeness of hearing on television or radio that a president's life had been snuffed out. "A nation's loss of innocence" means little - or seems passe - to this crowd, the generation that watched Columbine and Sept. 11 on live TV.

Their questions are largely practical: Samantha wants to know why Kennedy had the top down on the Lincoln and why the car wasn't bulletproof - sensible concerns for someone who's lived through a war on terror.

"I don't think it's possible to have the same feeling for those several days, those three or four days, that Americans who were here in this country and were glued to their television sets ... had," says Edward Klein, author of the recent bestseller, "The Kennedy Curse." "So it would strike me that the younger generations look upon this as something that happened not to them, but in history. And there's a big difference between living through history and reading or even seeing it on television. Clearly the intensity diminishes as time goes on."

In fact, a full two-thirds of visitors to the Sixth Floor Museum were born since Nov. 22, 1963. That means the details - once so embedded in America's collective memory - are fading or getting fuzzy. But not that unrelenting question: Why?

'It was like old age in there'

Drew, an eighth grader visiting from Mississippi, says his history class has spent a little time studying the assassination this year. But while tramping around the grassy knoll and looking out the Book Depository window, he says he still doesn't understand why "that guy" hated Kennedy so much.

"I thought he had done something wrong," says Drew, kicking at the sidewalk. "But I found out that nobody really knows why he was shot. It's still a puzzle."

But could he connect with the emotions his parents felt about the event? No.

"The photos were all black and white, and you had to squint to see who was in the pictures," he says. "It was like old age in there."

Some 60,000 children visit the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza each year, most of them on school field trips, says Jack Bunning, director of marketing at the museum. Naturally, younger children's question tend to be more simplistic, such as, why was Kennedy coming to Dallas, and why was the first lady with him?

But older children's questions, says Mr. Bunning, are more astute and less idealistic. That's probably because of the sustained interest in his life and the details that continue to spill out.

"When he died in '63, we didn't know any of the things that we know about John Kennedy today - his health, his philandering, and a lot of his other personal details. So he was a much purer figure," says Mr. Klein. "Whereas people who are receiving this information today - the 40th anniversary in particular - are asked to indulge in a retrospective experience about somebody of whom they have read and seen and heard a lot of conflicting things, both positive and negative."

Bullets and cars: the details that last

In understanding the events, which were so shocking to an innocent nation four decades ago, Bunning says it's not a disconnect, but a different connect for kids today. They are exposed to a lot more violence, from video games to movies to real life, so they see the assassination through a different lens. "They get it in a different way," he says.

Thirteen-year-old Drew, for instance, says he was fascinated by the investigation of the bullet's trajectory, which reminded him of a video game.

And 15-year-old Andrew Vandermeer says he was interested in details of the motorcade because he loves cars.

As he is studying the place where JFK was shot, a Corvette cruises by and Andrew's head swings around to stare - all thoughts of national tragedy gone. His mother, Lee Anne Vandermeer, simply shakes her head. "He's 15. What can I say? But I wanted to bring him here today because this was my Twin Towers. I come here often to remember it."

She waits until her son can focus again and then addresses him directly.

"When the 40th anniversary of Sept. 11 comes around, you'll get it."

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