In the middle of the spelling quiz

Nov 23, 2018

Today’s poem is “In the middle of the spelling quiz” by Mark Melnicove. Sometimes times, a pairing of Mark Melnicove's poems with artist Terry Winters' prints, was published in 2017 by Two Palms Press. He has just finished another poet-artist collaboration with Abby Shahn and her paintings of ghosts. He teaches English and creative writing at Falmouth High School.

He writes, “Sometimes it takes a while to make sense of events and memories of them. If the 11-year-old I was at the time of JFK’s assassination had written a poem about it soon after, it would have been filled with more facts than this one, but not been as precise. Over 50 years later, I have distilled and brought to a coherence what has remained unforgettable and salient from my experience of that catastrophe. In my version, national waves of fear and grief intersect with a local tragedy.”

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 cracked.
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 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. 

Poem copyright © 2017 by Mark Melnicove. Reprinted from Café Review, 2017, by permission of Mark Melnicove.