In the middle of the spelling quiz

by Mark Melnicove

In the middle of the spelling quiz, JFK died.
The announcement by our principal, an old man
who could barely stand anymore, came over the intercom.
The word we were struggling with was formation;
the next would have been crack.
Just like that, Mr. West, our teacher, retreated to his desk
and told us to gather up our things
and report to the gym, to wait for dismissal.
We formed unsteady clusters on the bleachers.
One surrounded Ricardo Castro, an emaciated kid, new
to the school, who had come from some place south.
He was not athletic, nor did he do his homework,
and suddenly, his last name became ominous.
A few boys taunted him, saying his uncle had shot JFK.
In all of America, this was probably one of the first
conspiracy theories to emerge after the assassination.
For a moment Ricardo, edging away, seemed to believe
the accusation, but there was no safety zone.
In the principal’s office, the administration was
fielding phone calls from distraught parents,
assuring them their sons and daughters were OK.
If rifles or knives had been allowed in school, some
crazed classmate might have gone after Ricardo.
Luckily, buses arrived, and we were herded outside,
where Ricardo disappeared onto the one not mine.
I saw him looking out a back window as it drove off,
his eyes counting the miles until he would be free.
After the four days of national mourning, when I
understood for the first time that despite the eternal
flame none of us were immortal, Ricardo Castro did not
return to school, and no one asked where he had gone.