President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline Kennedy are...

President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline Kennedy are greeted by an enthusiastic crowd upon their arrival at Dallas Love Field, on November 22, 1963. Only a few hours later the president was assassinated while riding in an open-top limousine through the city. Credit: AP, 1963

I finished my test before the other students in Robert Crowley's eighth-grade mathematics class at W. Tresper Clarke Junior High School in Westbury. That's what math geeks do. They finish early and watch the other students suffer.

Mr. Crowley didn't follow his regular routine of offering me an extra-credit question to temper what I suspect is now referred to as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Instead, he told me to go across the hall to the audiovisual room to find out what the commotion was. When I entered, I saw two teachers and three students watching fuzzy pictures with garbled sound on a large black-and-white television set.

The avuncular newscaster Walter Cronkite spoke gravely of shots fired at the presidential motorcade as President John F. Kennedy drove through the streets of Dallas. Upon returning to class, I told Mr. Crowley about the reports and returned to my seat.

Several moments passed before the principal, Francis Canale, came on the loudspeaker and announced the horrible news from Dallas. President Kennedy had been assassinated.

We sat in stunned silence. What could we do or say?

This was Nov. 22, 1963, a Friday. Over the next four days, we sat transfixed in front of our televisions as we watched the continuous network news coverage of the tragic events, a first for our country in the nascent media age.

On Sunday, we witnessed the public execution of the alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, by a Dallas nightclub operator while we sat in rapt attention in front of our TVs. With school closed on Monday, we beheld the poignant spectacle of the presidential funeral. Some workplaces were also shut down. I remember a neighbor in Levittown lamenting that he lost a day's pay because the president got shot. Some things never change.

For those of us born in the 1950s, the election of Kennedy ushered in an emerging era for America, one in which all problems could be solved with equal doses of youthful energy and creativity. A stodgy president was replaced by one who exuded confidence and "vigor."

In those heady years, we knew nothing of his sexual escapades, use of painkilling medication and CIA-inspired assassination plots against our nation's real and imagined enemies. The news media either did not know -- or chose to ignore -- the underbelly of American political life. We didn't find out about that side of Camelot for decades.

Through the lens of time, we can cast a jaundiced eye on JFK and his carefully crafted public image. Now we know about the millions of dollars his father spent to make his son the first packaged commodity in a new period of political theater -- and the Greek tragedy that the patriarch brought down on the House of Kennedy.

What lesson can folks of my generation -- and those who came of age after the assassination -- take from his life and untimely death? Should we be less idealistic than he encouraged us to be? Frankly, I don't know.

I will never forget that afternoon in Mr. Crowley's math class, in the same sense that members of the most recent generation will never forget where they were and what they were doing on Sept. 11, 2001, another line of demarcation for those who were young, another end to an age of innocence.

Reader Michael Cohen lives in Brightwaters.