Friday, September 11, 2009

Eternal Tears

Eternal Tears

The crackle of a classroom speaker.

Dozens of small voices, stilled

by the sudden intrusion,

stop at once.

A silence.

No movement in the room but

the rhythmic metronome of the teacher’s ruler

swinging back and forth in her craggy hands.

The crackle sounds once more,

and our faces turn in unison,

in anticipation,

towards its source.

A small, broken voice—

recognizable but not normal,

not the rich, strong voice usually carried into the room that way,

but a fragment of it,

a shell, without depth,

cracking like the speaker itself—

interrupts the silence.

“Bow your heads in prayer,” it says.

Confused eyes stare at the oval grill

awkwardly jutting out of an ancient beige wall.

The voice, more broken now, continues.

“We have just received word that the President has been shot.”

Vaguely we try to recall just what a President is—

visions of white-haired men in blue coats leap out of history books into

our brains, blur, roll into each other. Names, mostly from holidays,

flash through our minds.

And one more…

Again the electronic crackling,

as if the speaker itself does not wish to hear the news:

“President Kennedy was shot this afternoon in Dallas.”

A pause. A sound like weeping. “Pray for him.”

Dozens of eyes,



watch the teacher sit in stunned silence at her desk,

tears welling in her gray eyes,

the ruler grasped still tightly in her palm,

some connection to the world which has ended so abruptly.

Her face quivers, the gray in her hair even duller,

and her head slips to the desk.

We look at each other, recognizing

that something is terribly, unalterably wrong,

and bow our heads as well.

Eternity goes by.

No sound in the room but the humming of the clock

and the almost imperceptible click of its hand

every minute.

An airplane in the distance rattles the blinds on the window.

Somewhere a woman is calling someone,

her pained voice reaching out into the bright autumn sky.

Somewhere a baby is crying.

And we sit, heads on our desks, unsure exactly

what it all means,

still as we have ever been, waiting.


And the history book images flood back in:

Abraham Lincoln was a President who had been shot, but that was long ago,

very long ago,

and the quaking voice from the speaker had said, “this afternoon.”

Voices from the mind: fathers’ voices, mothers’ voices,

in dinner conversation,

working around the edge of a roast,

red and dripping,

saying something about a new age, a new life for the country,

a new hope.

The speaker comes to life again, startling us out of our thoughts;

the voice is choking back tears.

“President John F. Kennedy died this afternoon in a Dallas hospital.”

Wailing from somewhere down the hall.

Silence in the classroom.

Our faces blank, our minds blank.

All silent.

The speaker fades.

In the halls, there is silence.

Something terrible has happened, something

which will shape and define our lives.

So young, but we know that.

And we file quietly to our buses,

no tears in our eyes.

On this day, the tears are left to the grownups.

On this day, it helps to be a child.

And the buses roll through empty streets,

early afternoon traffic

stilled by the flickering blue light

of the television screens all are staring at,

and we go home to the arms of our waiting mothers,

and the blue lights transfix us too.

Perhaps some of us cry then.

Perhaps some of us wait

for the scratchy images

of a frigid November morning

with a horse-drawn carriage

rolling along the street lined

with men in black and

women in dark veils and

the young boy raising his hand

in a silent salute,

or perhaps we wait until the small flame

begins its eternal vigil,

solitary on the hillside,

or perhaps we never cry at all,

and return to our desks

on Monday,

bursting with children’s vigor,

forgetting what we have seen

and heard,

not fearing the next crackle of the tiny speaker.

But there are some memories,

stark or vivid,

that haunt and cling and will not let go.

And there are some tears—shed or withheld—that never go away.