Saturday, March 14, 2009

Walking back through time ...

It appears that my son, Bob, also recently engaged in nostalgia for times past. On the occasion of his Del Valle high school reunion -- he took the time to do something I've never had the courage to do. He returned to the home of his childhood and took his camera along. I've only driven past that lovely home twice in all the years since we left it. Both times were accidental in that I was a passenger in Tom's car and tried to pretend I didn't notice as we took the curve at Boulevard Way. He lives within a quarter mile of 2501 Warren Road in Walnut Creek.

I'd forgotten how lovely it was -- and of how much life we lived there ... times both awful and wonderful beyond measure. This lovely view of Mt. Diablo from the property often returns in dreams ... .

The house was on the market when Bob visited so he had a chance to walk around among the trees and let the memories lead him back. I'm not sure that I could do that, even now. But then I've never returned to the house that Bill and I shared on the topmost ridge of Berkeley; high above the university campus during the 80's. For reasons I've not given much thought to; I've never willingly retraced my steps -- not even to the home where I grew up in East Oakland. Wonder what that means?

I've lost track of the architect, Sewell Smith, the courageous Quaker who designed it. He would hardly recognize his masterpiece at this point. Over the years the redwood 4-bedroom home has been painted and the interior completely altered (according to Bob who managed to walk through). The swimming pool has been bulldozed and filled in and many of the fruit trees removed or replaced by ornamentals. No more wisteria nor any sign of the huge English walnut tree that overhung the deck. The Las Trampas creek which borders the back acreage still meanders through though I'm sure its bed has changed many times since we left. And it's no surprise that Bob thoughtfully included snapshots of a place where raccoon families shared the land with us and where tadpoles could be found in spring.

I'm sure that he remembered those hot summer evenings when he and David (and sometimes Rick) would drag their sleeping bags out behind the pool to bed down under the giant oaks. I remember how disconcerting it was for their less than courageous young mother who watched them traipse out for their starlight adventure knowing that I was almost too timid to go out with a flashlight to check on them should there be a call in the night; certainly not without my eyes cast downward and fingers in my ears! The sound of an owl or the sight of a possum could send me into sheer panic!

Looking at these snapshots reminded me how Biz, a neighbor's loving cocker spaniel used to sneak in at night and join the kids as they slept out. I remembered Helsa, our wonderfully protective German shepherd -- then later Barnaby -- the hilarious Old English Sheepdog we loved so much. The puppies, cats, turtles, rabbits; pets galore who shared that home with us for years on end.

Found myself wondering, while dropping off into troubled sleep last night -- just how well did we prepare our children for the world they would grow into? The pain inflicted by racism surely left its scars on their lives; pain we were unable to protect them from. How fair was I in so stubbornly demanding my rights to full equality at the expense of their well-being? I'm not at all sure that our good intentions compensated for the psychological and emotional damage they were exposed to. Yet -- despite all -- I love the people they've grown up to be. We're good friends who enjoy one another -- and being together when time and distance allows; Bob, David, Dorrie, and me. If only we'd been able to save Rick ... and if Mel had lived long enough to have known all of his grandchildren.

I see what are sincerely affectionate feelings being expressed for Sasha and Malia Obama, and great admiration for their parents. It's heartening to see, but for some of us it has come at least a generation too late.

...but one thing was perfectly clear in looking back at these idyllic photos. Mel and I surely did our very best to provide a good life for our children. Our world at that time didn't support us in that effort.

Would I want to do it all again? Only if I could live it this time with the acquired wisdom and courage that came with years and years of growth and change -- both for me and for the country.

Maybe we were just too far ahead of the curve.

Still missing Rick today, but a visit back to our early days as a family through Bob's photos seems to make it all a bit less painful. Maybe this can be considered a part of letting go ... not only of a son, but of memories of the good, the bad, and the ugly -- all essential parts of life, and in Rick's case, death.

Next week it's back to "rangering," with a panel at Santa Rosa Community College.

How wonderful to have meaningful work with which to anchor a life.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

How strangely doth the mind work ...

I've been feeling weary. Listless. Not quite "in or of this world" ... all day.

Just noticed the date as I closed out that last entry.

Today is March 11th. It would have been Rick's birthday -- had he lived to celebrate it. Has it really been ten years?

I'm making progress in a small way. Ordinarily I would have been aware much earlier in the day -- or anticipated a renewal of the pain for at least a week leading up it.

I suppose one never really lets go of a son whose life was cut short.

In a few hours it will be March 12th, and the memory will again fade and life will go on as before.
Writing on my journal has moved down on my list of priorities ... and I've missed it (and you) ... .

There have been many demands on my time of late, and I must admit to some creeping fatigue. Am not ordinarily at such a low ebb as I've felt these past several days -- not sure just why that is, but it could be simply the demands of the past two months.

Found myself a couple of weeks ago sitting before an assembly-hall filled with little ones. I was the centerpiece for the Black History Month celebration at the invitation of the African American parents of Quail Run Elementary School in San Ramon, California. There were two assemblies; the first for K-3rd grades and the second 4th & 5th. Beautiful children who filed into the room and seated themselves on the floor in a most orderly fashion.

It was lovely to notice that this collection of bright little faces was quite possibly the earliest evidence I've actually seen to date -- of the non-majority-majority status now enjoyed by this state. I noticed on their website that one-third of the student body is East Indian. The racial groups in the room represented not only East Indian but other Southeast Asians, Native American, African American, European-American, in almost equal numbers. I suspect -- a number of kids were from below our borders in South and Central America and Mexico, though they were not nearly as visible among these children. It was a veritable rainbow of faces -- the world as it is fast-becoming.

Since this is a very new community with the new school isolated on otherwise empty acreage for at least a mile around -- bordered on one side by newly-built homes giving way to a vista of empty fields for as far as the eye could see. It was a safe guess that these were children of Silicon Valley techies and scientists from nearby Mountain View for the most part and pretty much of a relatively privileged class. San Ramon is also the corporate base for Chevron-Texaco worldwide operations.

One of the parent planners who emceed our assembly presented a PowerPoint on a large drop-down screen of black icons (Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, W.E.B. DuBois, etc.,) -- asking the children to identify each and introducing those unknown with brief bios. This was followed by a choir of little ones singing "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" (the poet James Weldon Johnson's Negro National Anthem) followed by another small group performing "step dancing," an art practiced in historically black colleges throughout the south. They'd been coached lovingly by another of the moms.

I was delightfully surprised at how well-informed these children were with many hands raised excitedly -- great participation! These were far and away the best informed kids I've seen at these grade levels.

It was my turn, finally. So, seated at the edge of the stage looking "rangerly" in full uniform including my impressive Stetson and gold badges and name plate, I read 3 poems to them -- poems written by black poets (I liked the Nickie Grimes poem best) -- and was well received. I asked as an opening how many poets did we have in the room? Three fourths of the children raised their hands. Great!

Then it struck me: This roomful of beautiful multiracial-multicultural children were only one part of what was before me. As I looked out at the adults in the room, I noticed (seated around the edges of the audience) that every member of the teaching staff and the few administrators in the hall were white. There were 4 African American mothers (the planning group), and one or two fathers.

I'd originally wondered how this assignment fit into my outreach role with the NPS but as the programs came to a close and the children filed out, the African American children and parents remained behind and gathered 'roun with their cameras. It was picture taking time and everyone wanted to be photographed with the park ranger.

I knew then why it was important that I accepted this engagement. In this San Ramon school on this day I was the only authority figure (besides their parents) who looked like the audience! Small wonder that I was feeling almost revered. They'd listened in total silence as I read the poems. It certainly was not because I was a reader of the caliber of Maya Angelou or Nicki Giovanni. Those young ones were awed by the uniform. Maybe (as I often suspect) my garb was announcing a career choice to some who might not ever have considered such. Something that was unattainable to me during my own childhood. I hope I never forget that; or of just how dramatically the world has changed.

The teachers had obviously done a great job in preparing their students for this day. It was evident in their responses. Yes, they were white teachers. But in these days of increasing costs of training -- fewer people of color are coming out of the schools of education, right? Maybe it matters not how open our institutions are to the need to democratize the teaching profession -- if only those who can afford to get into the colleges and universities get to become teachers and if fewer and fewer students of color can do so -- our good intentions will be pointless. Given the 52% dropout rate among minority high school students in this state -- what hope for change is there really?

I'm accustomed to occasionally working before school audiences in the inner city. How different this was. Appearing before an obviously middle-class audience of children who enjoyed privileges afforded by attentive parents and a good teaching staff -- offered a very different environment than some of the classrooms I've been exposed to in Richmond. It gave lots of food for thought on the long 45 mile drive home.

It felt good in many respects to have been a part of something of meaning to those children, and for that I was grateful. I'd had a glimpse of what is possible -- given enough resources, attention from parents with the time and the energy to participate in their children's school lives -- and teachers willing to go the extra steps to satisfy the need for cultural identification ...

It was another good day.