Peace Corps Writers
God, President Kennedy and Me (page 4)
God, President Kennedy and Me
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     “President Kennedy is dead.”
     There were cries and gasps of disbelief. Nora Thigpen began to cry. I turned to her.
     “It’s not true,” I told her. “I know it’s not true.”
     A couple of students cheered.
     “He asked for it,” Sam Davidson said. “He was practically becoming a dictator.”
     “I think he was a good president,” Miss Goldman and I said in unison. Was?
     “This proves that God didn’t want a Catholic president,” Sam continued.
     “Oh, shut up!” I said. And then I remembered my responsibility as a possible future Miss Greenville High, and I added, “Please.”
     I still couldn’t believe that President Kennedy was dead. Reporters made mistakes. They were almost always wrong about the weather.
     “Dear God,” I prayed silently. “Let President Kennedy really be alive. Make this news a false report, and I will give up being Miss Greenville High School.”
     I paused for a moment. I knew I had to go further still.
     “I’ll even give up being among the finalists.” I added silently.
     In sync with my prayers, Mr. Kirkley continued.
     “There have been some questions about tonight’s beauty contest. If this was a frivolous affair, we would cancel it. But it’s been planned for a long time, and the publication of the yearbook depends on the money we raise tonight. So the contest will go on as planned.”

Last minute preparations
I convinced myself — sort of — that since I was representing the Future Teachers of America Club, it was my duty to participate in the contest. I decided I would go on, but I wouldn’t smile — not unless the news was false and Kennedy was really still alive. Then I would go on and I would smile but, in keeping with my vow to God, I wouldn’t win. I wouldn’t even be among the finalists.
     It was while Ursula was teasing my hair to make it look like Jackie’s that we received a phone call from the school secretary.
     “Some of the judges don’t feel like coming,” the secretary said. “So the beauty contest will have to be postponed.”
     Mother stopped working on my dress, and Ursula stopped working on my hair, and we all sat down in front of the TV and watched a disheveled Jacqueline Kennedy stand beside Lyndon Johnson as he was sworn in as our next president. She had a dark smear on her dress, and even though we didn’t have a colored television, we knew it was blood. She’d taken his head in her lap and then she’d crawled over the open limousine to get help.      “Now you look more like her than she does,” Ursula told me.

Everything had changed
We all spent the weekend right there in the living room, watching all the Kennedys. Caroline, who’d once come to her father’s press conference in her mother’s high heel shoes, was now crying as she held her mother’s hand. John John, sometimes photographed romping around in his father’s office, was now saluting our dead president’s flag-draped coffin. But the biggest change was in what they were saying about Jacqueline Kennedy. No one was talking about her sable underwear or who had designed the dress she was wearing or how much it had cost. All anyone noticed about her dress was that it wasn’t the pink suit with the blood stains on it. It was all black. A black mantilla replaced the pill-box hat. They were using words like courage and dignity. Everything had changed, and I knew I had too.
     As Ursula was getting ready to drive back to Winthrop, she said, “I came home for nothing.”
     “Well, you were here to watch President Kennedy’s funeral with us,” I said.
     “But that’s not something only I could do,” she replied. “Well, when they reschedule the beauty contest, let me know the new date, and I’ll see if I can come up.”
     “Thank you, Ursula,” I said, “But I ‘m not sure I have my heart in things like beauty contests anymore.”
     “Oh, that’s right. Now all you care about is the Highest Possible Moral Standards Award.”
     On Monday morning, Mr. Kirkely came over the PA system once again. He gave us the new date for the beauty contest.
     “And now, let’s have a moment of silent prayer,” he said, “for our country and in memory of President Kennedy.”
     That’s when I realized that in spite of what had happened, I still cared about the contest, and even though my silent prayer was all about Kennedy and his family and the nation (I was, after all, DAR Girl), I had to add a little PS about the contest. I was too ashamed to ask God to help me win it, with President Kennedy up there within earshot. Still, I had to ask God for something. It was my tradition.

Praying for the Peace Corps
“Dear God,” I told Him silently, “I guess, the way we left it, I could ask You to help me win this contest because I only offered not to win if Kennedy didn't die. But, even though we’re back where we began, I’d like to move forward and do something to honor Kennedy.” I didn’t mention anything about meeting foreign men and seeing foreign lands and learning foreign languages. I didn’t want God to think I had ulterior motives.
     “When the time comes and I’ve finished Winthrop College and got my BA in English, could you and President Kennedy help me get into the Peace Corps?”

When the time came, God and President Kennedy got me in.

Tina Martin applied to the Peace Corps, and requested any French or Spanish speaking country. She was sent to Tonga where they speak a Polynesian language in no way related to French or Spanish. After Tonga, she used her readjustment allowance to traveled to Spain where she taught English in Madrid for a year and then moved on to Algeria where she taught at a girls’ lycee for two more years. Finally she returned home to California, married, had a baby, and began to teach ESL students at City College of San Francisco, where between classes she has made trips to Japan, Cuba, Chile and Mexico. “My ESL students,” Tina writes, “have made it possible for me to travel around the world just by coming to class.”
     Her other writings include 28 Peace Corps journals, three plays, three novels, and numerous short stories which she keeps in a trunk for her son to inherit. In the meantime, this year “How Getting Robbed Can Enhance Language Learning” and “An Algerian Wedding” have been selected for an upcoming travel book,
I Should Have Just Stayed Home.

P.S. Tina, who loosely based this story on her own experience, won the Beauty Contest after it no longer meant as much to her, and during her two years in Tonga she lived in a tiny hut made of bamboo and coconut leaves. After dating men of almost every nationality, she married a U.S. citizen and spent more than four months learning about American culture.

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