I returned to school the Tuesday after Kennedy's assassination as if in a walking nightmare. The other students didn't appear to be as affected as I was by the tragedy. Maybe they just had a stronger emotional makeup or maybe they didn't see the full meaning of what that death in Dallas signified.
I had always been withdrawn and shy, but now those traits were much stronger. I had no close school friends. I wasn't invited to the birthday parties and slumber parties. I didn't have friends to sit with at lunch. I had become something of a pariah and I didn't know why.
Along with the reaction to the assassination, other things were happening to me that made me uneasy. My skin had become oily. My long hair became lank and lifeless. My forehead was a mass of pimples. I was no longer a cute little girl. I was gawky and tall and very, very skinny. I began to feign illness so that I could stay home and not have to deal with my feelings of being an outsider at school. I remember one winter afternoon, waiting in our living room for my ride to Mrs. Brown's dance class when I thought to myself: "Jo Ann, you just have to face the fact that you are never going to get married or have a family. You aren't pretty enough."
I was having difficulty with my school work for the first time. My first four years of school, I had been in a special class for gifted children. In the 5th and 6th grades, our gifted children' class was split up. I was surrounded by strangers. I was still in the gifted English class and the gifted math class, but I became confused by math for the first time. My teacher was a macho coach who catered to the cute girls and ignored those like me. I had always made straight A's but now, I was making C's in math. My intelligence, which I had always taken for granted, was being called into question. I was, quite simply, a mess that spring of 1964.
Finally, the school year was ending. I would have the blessed relief of being nurtured in the warmth of my family. The last day of school we were to have a class picnic at a classmates house. I remember putting on my white shorts, tennis shoes and madras blouse. And, then it happened. When I went to the restroom prior to leaving for the picnic, I saw blood on my panties. I had been told in vague generalities about getting your period, but I had assumed since my figure was undeveloped that that day was in the far future. No, it began the day I wore white shorts to school. I somehow got the courage to tell my teacher and she helped me with getting a sanitary napkin. I was terrified. Mother and I had never had a discussion about sex. She had handed me a book at the beginning of the year entitled "For Girls Only" and had asked me to read it. We had no discussion about the information that was in the book. Now, I would be forced to tell her that my period had begun.
The walk home from school that day was the longest walk of my life. I dreaded telling mom the news. I didn't know if I could even form the words to tell her what had happened. I walked into the house and blurted out, "My period began." She rushed me into the bathroom and helped me arrange things and said: "Now you will have to be more careful around the boys." That was all she had to say and I wasn't really sure why I had to be more careful around the boys. I went into the den and lay on the couch like a zombie or an invalid. Mom wandered through and said, "You don't have to just lay there, you can do what you normally do." But, I didn't feel normal. I felt weird and I felt embarrassed and I was somewhat ashamed that my body had betrayed me this way. I remember walking into my bedroom and looking into the antique mirror atop the marble-topped dresser and trying to see if I looked more mature, a bit more sophisticated, somewhat more womanly now that this drastic change had occurred. I still looked like the lanky, skinny, pimple-faced girl I had become at 12. There was no relief in sight.
Thinking back on these memories as I prepare to turn 65 years old, I feel such compassion for that young girl and what she went through in her 12th year. Looking back, it was the year of blood. There were my dreams of blood red moons, there was the blood that was spilled in Dallas, and there was the blood that had ushered me, totally unprepared, into womanhood. I would not trade places with that young girl. Yes, I am by some definitions old, but I have a sense of self that was missing as a 12-year-old. I have weathered tragedies. I have loved and been loved. I've been broken and lived to tell the tale. I have the strength that that little girl never guessed she possessed. So, ends the tale of my 12th year on this earth. It was a momentous year. And, much of who I am was formed in that year so filled with pain, confusion, and loneliness.