A Writer Writes

God, President Kennedy and Me

    by Tina Martin (Tonga 1969–71)

    I KNOW WHAT I WAS DOING THAT DAY before it happened. Praying. Not just because I was chairman of Religious Emphasis week at Greenville High School, but also because there was a beauty contest that night and, if it were God’s will, I was willing to win it. So I kept checking in with God, letting Him know that He was on my mind, and I sure hoped I was on His. I didn’t want Him to fix the contest. That wouldn’t be fair. I just wanted Him to help me do justice to whatever God-given beauty I might have so that I could honor the Future Teachers of America Club I was representing and serve as a good example for whoever needed one.
         “Dear God,” I whispered, “tonight’s the night. If it be Thy will for me to wear the crown of Miss Greenville High, Thy will be done, and” — I added with special emphasis—“I’ll give my first summer paycheck to CARE and the NAACP.”
         Living in The South twenty-five years ago, I was (1) in the habit of praying in and out of school and (2) in — and out of — beauty contests. We had them for everything, and at Ursula’s urging I’d started putting a red rinse on my hair at the age of twelve with the hopes of winning the beauty contest they had for Fire Prevention Week when I got to high school.
         That was when I first knew that Ursula could be nice — when I realized that this sister of mine, the one who’d previously just beaten me up and taken my lunch money, wanted to help me win. To this very day I don’t know why. It wasn’t like she was living through me. She’d won the same beauty contest in her freshman year, and it was rare that a girl won before she was a senior.

    Greenville’s Elizabeth Taylor
    Ursula looked like Elizabeth Taylor back in the days when that was a good thing. She had everything from almost-violet eyes to those eyebrows, that perfect nose, oval face, perfect teeth. The only thing that wasn’t quite the same was the black hair. Ursula’s hair was really dishwater blond, but almost no one knew that, like they didn’t know that I wasn’t really a redhead until after I’d lost the Miss Flame contest and went back to my real color.

         Ursula had been dying her hair jet black since she’d first seen Elizabeth Taylor in “Raintree County.” She’d also been dressing pretty much like Elizabeth Taylor in that film, which made people think she was a strange beauty because it was a period piece. Not that she wore bonnets or anything. But when other girls were wearing matching cashmere sweaters and straight skirts, she was wearing full skirts and lots of crinolines more reminiscent of the War Between the States, as southerners call the Civil War.
         In our family, we called the War Between the States the Civil War because — as my best friend Marcia told people when she introduced me — we weren’t from around here. Which is why I was bribing God with my summer wages, promising to give my first paycheck to CARE and NAACP, which southerners considered Communist organizations at the worst and soft on Communism at the best. My parents taught us something different from what my friends believed, and for some reason I thought God would be more on the wave length of my parents, maybe because they were older, as was God.
    Ursula, who — as I said — had won the Miss Greenville High contest herself, had come back from Winthrop College to help me win it. She’d picked out the pattern for the dress I was going to wear and helped Mother find the material at the remnant store because one of Daddy’s strongest convictions was that we shouldn’t spend money. He used to give Mother a budget, and she’d put five or ten dollars in each envelope, but sometimes she'd have to borrow from the clothing envelope for the food envelope and vice versa. Daddy was a history professor at the university, but the friend I felt I had the most in common with was Gwen, whose father was a shoe repairman, because Gwen and I both lived poor.
         Anyway, getting back to Ursula, she knew just how to get my hair to look like Jackie Kennedy’s. Beauty was Ursula’s greatest talent, and I knew I was lucky that she was doing this for me, but I wasn’t counting on luck or Ursula. I was counting on God, which was why I was praying more than usual that day.
         “Please, dear God, if it be Thy will.” The minimum wage had gone up to $1.15 an hour, and I would give all my first pay check to these good causes if God would support my cause and let me win the crown. It hurt me, I told God, that not everyone believed in His existence the way I did. And it hurt me, too, that not everyone believed in the existence of my God-given beauty the way I prayed the judges would. Being beautiful — at least for one night — would be an answered prayer.
         “A thing of beauty,” I said, paraphrasing one of the poems I’d memorized to make up for being bad at math, “would be a joy forever.” I wanted to bring Joy to the World and prayed that I could do it this special way.

    Really, beauty was skin deep, but . . .
    Of course, other girls prayed. This was The South, after all. But their prayers were shallow. Mine, on the other hand, had depth because I had a social consciousness, which I figured God had too. That was one of my advantages in the beauty contest. I had a better idea, I thought, of what God wanted, though it never occurred to me that He would want Negroes in the contest. Of course, there weren’t any Negroes at our school.
         “It’s been a decade since the Brown vs. Kansas,” my mother would say, “and there’s not a face that isn’t white at that school.”
    “Or any other,” I’d say. I knew our school was no more prejudiced than any of the others. Most southerners thought the Supreme Court had been infiltrated by Communists, and the government was going to take over and destroy our way of life. People in South Carolina were saying that President Kennedy and his brother had already gone to Mississippi and Alabama totally disregarding State’s Rights, and they’d probably be coming here, but until they did, it was going to be Separate But Equal. Separate water fountains. Separate parts of the bus. Separate schools. And, of course, separate beauty contests for the whites and the coloreds, if they had beauty contests.
         I knew even back then that “whites and coloreds” sounded like socks, but black was a term reserved for Stephen Foster songs like “Old Black Joe.” Black was not yet beautiful. But that night I would try to be. Though I occasionally tried to rise above such petty aspirations, that night, with God’s help, I would indulge and achieve them. Once I’d gotten being beautiful out of my system, I assured God and myself, I could spend my time praying for the outcast. But tonight I would reserve my prayers for me — that I not be cast out — at least not until after I’d made the finalists. I knew beauty was but skin deep, but tonight skin deep got crowned. Skin deep got a dozen long-stemmed roses. And most importantly, skin deep got two full pages in our high school yearbook.

    Making out with Jean Paul
    When I look back, I realize that I didn’t really have to win that contest to take up more than my share of space in the high school yearbook. I’d been a dismal failure in junior high school. Partially because I got a bad reputation when I made out with Jean Paul Mathieu, the French exchange student, at the Thanksgiving homecoming game, and the Vice Principal had reprimanded me right in front of everyone: “You shouldn’t even be wearing lipstick, much less doing what you were doing.” But Jean Paul Mathieu was a foreign student, and from a very early age, foreigners were my idols. I regarded them as celebrities.
         In fact, I had a fantasy of marrying three foreigners — a Chinaman, a Frenchman, and a Mexican — and having a baby with each one. Then the children and I would travel around and spend four months in China learning Chinese and the Chinese culture, four months in France learning French and the French culture, and four months in Mexico, et cetera.
         That had been my fantasy until President Kennedy introduced the idea of the Peace Corps. Having three husbands was a beautiful fantasy. But the Peace Corps was a cross-culture dream that could come true. Anyway, girls weren’t even supposed to begin wearing lipstick until the second semester of seventh grade, so because of the lipstick and what I was doing with Jean Paul Mathieu people thought I was fast and cheap, and this was a school for nice girls, so I was ostracized. Now that I think of it, though, Ursula stood by me. But of course she was the one who’d told me to wear lipstick my first semester even though everyone in the car pool and at Miss Sloane’s Dance Class had agreed on the second semester. The point, though, is that I had a bad reputation in junior high.

    Winning friends with Dale
    But in high school I’d over-compensated. I’d learned that success consisted of being like everybody else, only better, and — God willing— prettier. I’d learned how not to be weird, not to look too eager. I’d learned how not to dress. (Not in my wilted, smelly gym blouse just because I could never get my locker open. Not with my bobby socks crawling down into my loafers.) I’d even learned how to open my locker. I’d learned when to help others and when to help myself. I’d read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, and I’d begun my negotiations with God.
         Gradually I’d become socially acceptable — even decent. I was DAR Girl and Chairman of Religious Emphasis Week. I’d accumulated awards and been elected to school offices. Now I was a member of Executive Council and the Editor of the literary yearbook, The Rebel. This was a big turn-about for a girl who’d been nominated for an office only once in junior high school and had broken out in a cold sweat because she feared the only vote she’d get was that of the kid nominating her. I was right. The teacher forgot to erase the board, and I saw it with my own eyes.

    Homeroom Coupon Chairman
       Janet Donahue: 16 votes
       Matthew Kent: 8 votes
       Barbara Lee Shealy: 1

    Did I mention that my name is Barbara Lee Shealy?

    Splendor in the grass
    But now in my senior year of high school, I was president of two clubs, including Future Teachers of America, which was sponsoring me in the beauty contest that night. If I won, in a way it would be a boon to American education. But I have to admit, it wasn’t just for that that I wanted to win. I wanted to win so that I’d have a permanent record of how I was before I started to grow old. Ursula always said that from the age of sixteen, we start to die a little bit every year. “Nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, glory in the flower,” Ursula said, “So gather we rosebuds while we may.” I wanted a two-page spread of how I was before I started to wither and wilt.
         Ursula had told me to cut classes that day so she’d have longer to work on me — after all, she was cutting three days of her classes at Winthrop to come home to help me — but the principal had a new policy. He saw how girls were being absent from their classes to have their hair done on the day of the beauty contest, so this year he’d announced that roll would be taken, and any girl absent from any of her classes would be ineligible to compete in the Miss Greenville High School Beauty Contest. So Ursula agreed to start in on my Jackie Kennedy “do” right after school got out.
         Before I left for school that morning, I caught my mom reading when she was supposed to be working on my dress.
    “What’s The Feminine Mystic about?” I’d asked her.
         “It’s Feminine Mystique,” she’d corrected me. “It’s all about the sacred feminine ideal.”
         I’d nodded. I had a sacred feminine ideal: God willing, I’d be the prettiest girl of all — please, dear God, just for one night. If mother ever finished the dress! When Ursula got up, she could nag her while I was in school. She’d driven up the night before in the little Fiat Daddy bought her because he wouldn’t support the re-industrialization of Germany by buying a VW, and she and I had had a little bit of time to confer on how I should walk, how I should smile, and things like that. She’d been nice until she just had to ask that question she’d been taunting me with all semester.
         “How’s your campaign going?”
         “What campaign?”
         “You know. The one for the highest possible moral standards award?”
         “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

    Glenn McAteer Scholarship
    “Yes, you do!”
         “No, I don’t!” I said. I looked at her as if she were crazy and I had a low tolerance for the mentally ill.
         But I knew. She was talking about the Glenn McAteer Scholarship, which was awarded to a high school senior every year. Glenn had once been the president of the student body at Greenville High, and then he’d been killed in action in Korea. In his memory they gave an award to the senior who most exemplified the characteristics he embodied: Service, leadership, and the highest possible moral standards.
         They didn’t have the term “short list” back then, but if they had, I’d have been on it. Unless they found out about me in junior high.
         Mother put down her book and told me to try on what she’d done so far.
         My gown was long and straight — something like the one Jackie had worn when she’d gone to France with President Kennedy and he’d introduced himself as “the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.” And she’d spoken French with DeGaulle. Someday I’d know French too. I’d join the Peace Corps right after I finished college and I’d go to some French-speaking country and learn French while I did good deeds.
         “Are you sure this is going to be ready by tonight?” I asked her.
    “Don’t worry. It’ll be ready,” Mother said through the pins between her front teeth. I remembered how I’d had to wear pins in my clothes on the occasions when my formal wasn’t ready — like for the junior-senior dance the year before.
         “Please God, please,” I prayed silently. “Let it be ready by tonight. Help Mother focus.”

    Being Jackie Kennedy
    There were few occasions when I didn’t turn to God, and I prayed silently all the way to school. After our classroom prayer during homeroom period, I added my own silent P.S. “If it be Thy will . . .”
         People came by me at my hall monitor post, and a lot of them said, “Good luck tonight.” I looked back at them quizzically, as if the beauty contest were the furthest thing from my mind.
         “Why don’t you get your hair fixed like Laura Petrie on ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’?” someone asked. “You already look a little bit like her.”
         “But it wouldn’t be right to copy her,” I said, and I shrugged. “I just have to be myself.”
    And myself was going to be Jackie Kennedy. Mary Tyler Moore was cute, but I wasn’t settling for her. I was going to be the President’s Wife.

    The auditorium
    I walked by the auditorium where we’d be having the contest in just a few more hours. The faculty sponsor of the yearbook, Miss Carver, had vetoed the students’ vote for “The Days of Wine and Roses” as the theme because she said it wouldn’t be seemly to have wine bottles decorating a high school stage. So tonight we’d hold crescent-shaped cards bearing our numbers, and “Moon River” would play as we walked across the stage — the same stage where Strom Thurmond had stood while getting a standing ovation earlier in my high school career. I had stood and applauded, too, because even though I disagreed with everything Strom Thurmond stood for, I didn't want to stand out by not standing. I knew I would probably not have made President Kennedy’ Profiles in Courage, but how many of the men in that book had been rejected for Homeroom Coupon Chairman? I didn’t want to alienate my southern friends, and I knew their fears.

    Civil Rights and Communists
    In spite of Strom Thurmond’s stand against civil rights, the Civil Rights Bill had become law. And those Kennedy Brothers were starting to enforce it. Other things were happening too. Back in April Sidney Poitier had won the Oscar for “Lilies of the Field,” and no colored person had ever won an Oscar before. There he was, up on stage with Patricia Neal, a white lady, and they were hugging each other, which was worse than what I’d done with Jean Paul Mathieu. Jean Paul Mathieu might not have been “from around here,” but at least he was white. Sidney Poitier and Patricia Neal were on their way to misogenation!
         Then, in June, there’d been that big civil rights march in Washington with more the 200,000 people showing up and hearing Martin Luther King talking about making all people equal no matter what color their skin. If God had wanted all people to be equal, my friends reasoned, wouldn’t He have made them equally white? And then President Kennedy had sent troops to Alabama to force an all-white school to accept two colored girls, and they’d enrolled in spite of Governor Wallace’s efforts to protect states’ rights. The federal government was becoming Communist and taking over the country, stirring discontent into the heads of colored people who had been perfectly happy before.
         I certainly didn’t let my classmates in on my promise to God that I’d give my first paycheck to the NAACP if I were chosen our school beauty queen. But I thought God might like that, not necessarily being Southern — a possibility I never suggested to my friends. The leader of the NAACP had been assassinated in June, and four Negro children had been killed in a church bombing in Birmingham. I had a hunch that God didn’t buy that thing about their being Communists.

    So few of her kind
    I don’t remember any of my morning classes; I assume I prayed my way through them. But I do remember Miss Goldman’s Problems of American Democracy class after lunch that day because that was when the news came.
         Miss Goldman was my favorite teacher. She was a Democrat, too, at a school where the principal himself — Mr. Kirkley, an otherwise nice guy who’d coached football before coming to our school — had started The Young Republicans Club, which he himself was sponsoring. The South had finally caught on that the Republican Party was no longer the party of Lincoln, who had done such terrible things to the South. The parties had switched, and the South was turning away from the Democratic Party. In fact, there was no Young Democrats Club at Greenville High, and Miss Goldman had protested.
         “If you think the school should have a Young Democrats club,” Mr. Kirkley had told her, “you’re free to start one.”
         But she wasn’t free. She was already the sponsor of the International Relations Club, of which I was president. She was one of the few people outside my family who was enthusiastic about my plans to join the Peace Corps as soon as I finished college, culminating a five-year plan that only began with tonight’s beauty contest.
    Miss Goldman was the only Jew at our school. As chairman of Religious Emphasis Week, I thought of her and suggested that we drop the “in Jesus Christ we pray” part of our prayers so she wouldn’t feel left out. But Miss Webster, the sponsor of Religious Emphasis Week, said, “I’m sure she doesn’t mind if we pray our way when there are so many of us and so few of her.”

    The news
    Close to the beginning of our 1:15 class, Mrs. Lindly, a math teacher who had an Algebra by TV class, came to the door.
         “You know what?” she said. “They interrupted our Algebra lesson for a news bulletin. There’s been some shooting around President Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas.”
         “Oh, how awful!” Miss Goldman said. “I hope nobody’s been hurt.”
         I dropped God a quick line.
         “Dear God, let everyone be all right.”
         But I knew that no one had been hurt — not seriously, if at all. I was so certain that President Kennedy was all right that I felt foolish wasting my prayers — prayers that should be directed towards the less certain outcome of the night’s beauty pageant.
         We went back to our lesson about voting precincts. And then the principal came over the PA system.
         “President Kennedy has been shot,” he said. “We have not yet received word on whether or not the shot was fatal.”
         Fatal? Of course the shot hadn’t been fatal. Why was Mr. Kirkley being so melodramatic? Presidents didn’t get assassinated nowadays. Not in our country. Maybe he’d been shot at. I could picture him in a Dallas clinic now, charming the staff as the nurses bandaged a slightly knicked shoulder.
         “I had hoped for a 20-gun salute,” he might say, “but not directed at me.”
         That night I was going to look like his wife. The time he took her to Paris.
         A few minutes later Mr. Kirkely came over the PA system again.
         “May I have your attention please?”
    He had our attention.
         “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.