A Dream

15 Jan

All I really need to know I learned at my daughter’s kindergarten. Not to get all Robert Fulghum on you, but the hour I spent at her school yesterday was one of the most profound and moving experiences I can remember.

Ananda’s school has an assembly every Friday morning, with parents invited to stick around after dropoff, even encouraged to do so. These hour-long all-school events are always worthwhile, with singalongs and other endearing evidence of the school’s more-than-lip-service commitment to community building. But yesterday’s was an especially tender assembly, coming just before the long weekend of Martin Luther King Day.

My girl was among the first to step to the front of the room. She and her class of kindergartners and first graders presented a biography of King, each child reciting a few facts, one after another, or holding up drawings to bring the story to life. We also heard a bio of Rosa Parks and sang, along with the whole school, a song about Ruby Bridges, who in 1960 became the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South. The seventh and eighth graders gave us a fascinating connect-the-dots portrait of nonviolent resistance, depicting the similarities between King, Mahatma Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy. I knew about each of these men individually, of course, but it was eye-opening for me to hear their stories told as one.

The moment when it really all came together, though, was when the whole room broke into a rendition of “We Shall Overcome” that sounded more hope-filled than defiant. As I sat there quietly singing, my thoughts drifted, drifted, drifted all the way back to my youth, a time of much less racial harmony than I felt in that assembly room yesterday. I grew up at the time of Martin Luther King in a racially divided New Jersey town, with a mostly white populace and with blacks living on just a few scattered blocks, never the twain shall meet.

One of those blocks was on the way to my grammar school, and for eight years of walking to and from school, I went out of my way to detour around that little neighborhood, which I viewed as dark and dangerous. On one of the rare occasions when I ventured onto that block, a snowy day when I wanted to get home the most direct way possible, I remember the feel of a hard-packed snowball hitting me on the back of the neck after I had passed a group of black kids standing in front of a ramshackle house. I remember them laughing. I remember the chilly drip of melted snow seeping down my back, inside my winter jacket. I remember just walking on without looking back.

Other than in Little League baseball, I never interacted with the black kids in town. But one day a bunch of friends and I decided to go play basketball on the court outside the high school, and we got there just as a large group of black kids was arriving. There was only one court. It was a tense moment until someone – I don’t remember if it was one of them or one of us – suggested we play a game, black vs. white. Now, my buddies and I played pickup hoops amongst ourselves every day after school, but we’d never played with these kids, even though we’d all grown up in the same town. So it was a venture into the unknown. It felt significant and unnerving.

What I remember from that game was not the final score or even who won and who lost. What I remember is that the black kids took the lead, then we started a comeback. As the score grew closer, we called time to substitute players and I was one of those who came out of the game. And when play resumed and our team scored to pull within a basket, I suddenly began singing, loudly, “We shall overcome … we shall overcome …”

A buddy standing next to me on the sideline nudged me in the ribs, and when I looked over at him he was wide-eyed, as if he’d seen a ghost. “What, are you crazy?” he whispered. “Don’t sing that song around them!”

I had no idea what I was doing, what the song I was singing – more casually than tauntingly — really meant at that time in history. I was pretty much ignorant about the Civil Rights Movement. I knew who Martin Luther King was, but I’d learned about him only through the distorted lens of my grandparents, whom my mom and I lived with. I hesitate to type the words “They were racist” because I loved Papa and Nanny dearly, and they grew up in a different time in a small city with deep cultural, socioeconomic and racial divides. But the fact is that in our house King was no hero. When he was assassinated a couple of months after my 10th birthday, the deepest concern I heard expressed at home was that the riots that had wrecked nearby Newark less than a year earlier would come visiting our town.

My little daydream left me a little teary yesterday as I sang that beautiful song at the school assembly. As I looked around the room, which was decorated with pictures of Rev. King and other Civil Rights heroes of his time, I got to feeling that in some ways we have overcome. Or at least my own personal and family legacy has. I surveyed all the little faces, most of them white, all of them with the hopeful glow of innocence not despoiled by bigotry or another form of ignorance. When my eyes finally settle on Ananda’s sweet face, I felt the warmth of knowing that there are at least some things my daughter shall not have to overcome.

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