While recharging for a new week, I have a Sunday ritual. I try hard not to grade papers (I already have a ton, it seems). Instead, I reread all the handouts for the week and review my plans for each class. Some Sunday’s I start the week in church. On others, I go to my neighborhood park. Today, I choose the park.
The weather is a perfect 80 degrees with an abundance of sunlight and soft breezes. It has been a busy weekend in DC. On Saturday, the two marches–Beck’s and Sharpton’s–consumed the media’s attention. Both came on the 47th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I mentioned it in class last week. “Were you there?” one student asked aloud. Now that I have hair, gray at that, the students assume I am related to Moses. “No,” I told them, “but I remember it.”
And I do. I was eight at the time. For some reason I do not recall, I was in Florida at my grandmother’s house. My mother was with me, two of my brothers, and one uncle, the most handsome one, who was murdered later by the husband of girlfriend I believe. I remember watching the speech with one eye and my grandmother with the other. I had never seen so many black people on television. There seemed to be a rule against it at the time. I can still see her black and white television in a wooden case backed against the center wall in the front room.
As Dr. King spoke, my grandmother ironed. The thud of the iron hitting the board began to match the cadence of King’s wonderful voice. Somewhere near the middle, she stopped ironing completely and just stood in front of the TV. She began to speak to the sound coming out of that box, yelling, “Yes!” and “Tell ’em about it.” I had never seen her so animated, except in church.
I knew some of what King had to say involved me. But I was only eight, a second-grader. I remember asking Sister Leon in my Catholic school to marry me in second grade. I had worked on my speech all week, and I volunteered to help erase the board after school so we would be alone. “Sister,” I asked. “Will you marry me?” I said it quickly and then fumbled with the erasers. She said nothing for what seemed like such a long time. Then she approached me in those funny black laced-up shoes and her sweeping black-winged habit hiding her hair. I could see her pale cheeks flush with color underneath, and I worried about what she would say. “I am already married,” she finally told me. “Nuns are married to Jesus.”
“Oh,” I said, head down.
“But I am sure that one day you will make someone a wonderful husband. Such a fine, young man you will be.”
It’s funny the things you recall on Sunday’s. I arrive at the park around noon. It is already full with activity. It is not a park really, just a large expanse of green fields, a playground, and tennis courts flanked by two recreations centers, one old, one new. I always park near the older, original rec center, preserved because of its age. I was a radio disc jockey once, and the old need to serenade the crowd always overcomes me. I park across from the cluster of old guys and gals who sit on plastic chairs, and play and watch tennis. They control this part of the park on Sunday’s, and they have grown accustomed to my music.
I blast it from the car radio and lower all the windows for full effect. But my car is not fancy, and the sound is just loud enough outside to be heard without interfering with conversation. I play “old school” songs they haven’t heard in years, sprinkled with newer hits whose sound feels old. The elders, as I call them, listen; some even trot out the old dances and laugh. A few men sip frosty liquids in plastic cups.
On the driver’s side of my parked car sits the playground, one of those modern apparatus with colorful plastic and spiral sliding boards. The small size of the swings invites little kids up to five, and there are three clusters of families inside the playground gate. Two black women still dressed in church clothes have six young faces between them. The children race from station to station while the two women talk. Not far from them, two white women with three youngsters also converse near children jumping up and down in a different area. The parent groups do not mix, but soon the children find each other and begin to commingle their games. All the women watch and move closer towards each other. I turn the music down a bit so I can relish the children’s laughter.
Beyond the gated playground area, a robust game of soccer commands the wide, green fields near the edge of the park. Judging from the outfits, flags, and bits of language, the players are all foreign-born, Latinos and African immigrants mostly. They flow back and forth on the emerald field, and I can hear the whistle of a referee from time to time.
To the North of the playgrounds, young men still high-school-skinny play basketball. Most are shirtless, and the sheen of sun and sweat reflects off their copper bodies as they leap and taunt and work. On a bench beside the game, one teenage girl is braiding the hair of a young man who stills tries to watch the game intently. On the sidewalk parallel to the street, a young, white father is teaching his daughter to ride a bike. The training wheels are still on, and she seems reluctant to take them off. Finally, he convinces her, and off they move out of my sight.
I play Marvin Gaye, and Bootsy Collins, and then Michael Jackson. Three young teenagers pass as the memorable bass line in “Billie Jean” pours from my car. They begin to mimic Jackson’s trademark dance, and the older folks across the street smile and start to do the same> Even one toddler near the swings triumphantly spins a move or two .
It is a perfect day, and I think back on the events of that first week of school. I have set an ambitious pace and must maintain it, not an easy task. But I have never been attracted to things which come too easily. I never trust the results. I read in the paper that in his speech Beck called for a return to God, something about America having lost its way. As Jackson’s “Earth Song” rises into the air, and his scorching refrain takes center stage–“What about us?”–I wonder which America he means. For this week anyway, mine seems to be doing just fine.