Thursday, August 28, 2008

Waiting for the bus

I had just turned seven years old when Dr. King made his "I have a Dream" speech. I don't remember it. But I do remember, somehow, that a couple of months later a church was blown up in Alabama and four little girls were killed. In my mind, they were the same age I was and all I was terrified because people would kill little children. I, who had not ever actually seen a black person so had no reason, I suppose, to hate them, thought that I myself was in danger, because I didn't hate black people and they would kill you for that, too.

When I was in seventh grade, we were living in Panama and so the intensity and chaos of 1968 just passed me by. But one thing did happen. We had an assignment to memorize a speech and deliver it in an assembly. I went to the library and got a book of Great American Speeches and I found one by this guy named Martin Luther King. I was enthralled, "my four children will be judged not the the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Again I felt like I was part of that, that I, still never having met a black person, was entitled to be judged by my character as well. When I gave the speech, it was the only public speaking I ever did as a child where I did not stutter and shake.

The next school year, we were living in Summerville, South Carolina, outside of Charleston. My dad was in Vietnam. All the buzz in my junior high school was that the schools were going to be integrated the next year. That year, I rode my bike to school. I would ride from home, down a couple of roads, then turn left along the fence that enclosed the elementary and junior high campus. The campus was on the right, and across the street were houses that were made of wood, a little shabby with metal roofs. Little black children were standing in front of those houses waiting for the school bus. Little children, like me, who had to look across the street to a school that all these other children were going into, but they had to wait in the cold and rain for a bus to take them somewhere else.

How could anyone be so cruel to a child? I somehow understood that the people who made those rules really did not see these children as people. If they did, they would not be so cruel as to force them to watch as other children went to a beautiful shiny school while they had to wait for a bus.

On this night, Barack Obama will accept the nomination for President. I know in my heart that he will win. And this middle-aged white woman has tears coming to her eyes at the thought. Those little children are probably grandparents now, and I hope that they will be watching too.

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