It is 1951, and summer has come to a steady, hot, quiet hum late in August. A healthy amount of boredom in the air begins to let the summer end, making way for anticipation of my first day of kindergarten, the beginning of school. My brand new first-day-of school dress hangs on the mirror over my bureau. Red plaid, I think, with a white collar. New cotton undies and slip and soft white ankle socks are folded on the bureau. And in an open shoe box, with white tissue paper unfolded enough to see them, are my new red school shoes (my mother had told the salesman “something sturdy in a school shoe.” I had been picturing bright red patent leather party shoes and was crestfallen when “sturdy” signaled the salesman to bring out brown with a tie.) Mom and I must have persevered each with our own image of what my first school shoes would be, because I ended up with oxblood red leather with a double strap and double buckles – pretty but sturdy – “handsome” was my father’s peacemaking word for the compromise shoes. Every end of August night before going to bed, I would carefully lift the shoes out of the crisp paper, smell the fresh, new leather, put them on the floor next to my feet and think, “I am going to school. I’m going to step up the big high steps onto scary Mr. Gurky’s scary big school bus where I’ve heard the big kids chant, “kindergarten baby stick your head in gravy” when the little kids get on. I’m going to real school in a strange new place. Will anybody know who I am?
It is 37 years later. I am sitting in my room at the school where I have just begun my second year as principal. The principal’s office has been painted a calming adobe white, and I have filled it with familiar treasures – paintings, pottery, weavings – gifts from children I have taught. A photograph of my parents standing arm in arm in front of our home beams out over my shoulder. An Easter morning image of my husband and two sons walking along the beach, the sunrise at their broad shoulders, reassures me. And my sturdy rocking chair welcomes the littlest visitor to a cozy lap or offers my own back solid support when a tougher customer comes around. I have tried to make my room an oasis in the hectic world of school.
It is late August and, as I sit in my room working on scheduling and carpools, signing requisition forms and answering anxious phone calls, I have a sense of a great August tide coming in from the outside world. All that late summer boredom washing over the families, all those shopping trips for new school clothes, all that talk in the aisles of the grocery store or the parking lot of the mall about which teacher your child got and whether her best friend is in her class. All that anticipation. And right then, as I glance out of my window to the front yard of school, comes someone who couldn’t wait for the first day. It is four-year-old Libby Sailor, bright round face, big brown eyes, shiny clean hair, brand new crisply ironed red plaid cotton dress with big white collar, and handsome red school shoes. She has climbed out of the car and is walking bravely toward the school, her mother, somewhat less bravely, is trying to catch up from many steps behind. She has come to school with a wondering in her heart: WILL ANYBODY KNOW WHO I AM?1
You are a sojourner on the first day of school. You stand at the door holding a gift in your hands. You hold the gift of your story, your experiences, your dreams. It is the gift of your longing and hopefulness, your relationships with your family and friends. You hold the gift even of your reluctance and waiting and doubts. You hold the gift of your questions, even the ones you do not yet know to ask. You hold the gift of your thirst for life. Will anybody know who I am? Will anyone know what I can do? Will anyone see what gift I hold in my hands?
The question is at once a child’s question and a prophet’s question. It is one that is asked as we step onto Holy Ground. It is a question that speaks of longing to be known. It is an invitation to know our unseen selves, to discover the spiritual gifts that reside in our feeling life. It is an invitation for others to know our story. And it is an invitation to remember our own stories too. “Will anyone know who I am?”
It is late in August of 1963, a sweltering, hot summer day between high school graduation and my first year of college. The old, rickety school bus painted over light blue and lettered with the name of a Baptist church has brought me safely to this spot where I kneel on the grass beside the reflecting pool in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, my hand unconsciously moving the still, dark, healing water through my fingers. I am at once alone and a part of something much bigger than this moment in time can gather. Two hundred and fifty thousand people have put on their shoes and journeyed here by train and bus, by plane, in cars, some on foot from the D.C. neighborhoods, none of us knowing or even imagining, I suspect, what moment we will look back on thirty years later.
My seventeen-year-old heart is filled with fear as I climb the steps of this bus full of strangers in the cooler early morning hours back in Nyack, New York. It is not unlike the cool mornings of my childhood years, dutifully climbing the big yellow school bus steps because I knew I must, even as I would quickly learn that the daily journey would separate me by more than the country roads we traveled from the sanctuary of home. I am thankful at this moment for the years of practice climbing these steps against my will, because I know I must take this trip now.
The press has punctuated the headlines and airwaves with frightening rumors of possible rioting and mass arrests in Washington. “Stay home,” they warn us. But right now a more urgent voice is lifted up into my heart. It is the voice of a lifetime of stories told round the family table, on family trips, and in the holy moments of my parents sitting on the edge of my bed in the safe darkness of my room having tucked me between the crisp, clean sheets for the night. I hear their patient, careful answers to my frightened questions about lynchings and bus-burnings in the south. “Could they come here?” I remember asking when my mother found me weeping in my sleep in the middle of the night. I’d been dreaming of our two-room school house where my brother and sister and I were the only brown-skin children – the buttoned down desks and slate blackboards all blown up in splinters and flames. And though I cannot remember my parents’ words, I feel the comforting tones of their voices and the warmth of my mother’s hand in my hand, my father’s big hand squeezing my shoulder as they bravely, simply taught their children through and beyond the anger and pain of their own firsthand memories of indignities done to our people. And then as if my feet have their own memory of what my parents taught us next, I am lifted up the steps of this bus bound for the March on Washington. Something in me and beyond me is carrying on.
Now as the driver pulls closed the large, silver lever of the bus’ folding door, as the old bus coughs and sputters away from the curb, I find myself comforted by the press of my seat-mate’s large right arm against my left shoulder, my right shoulder against the now foggy bus window also familiar from years of crowded school bus rides. We are not all the way down the block before the bus is filled with singing, and the pounding of fear in my chest makes itself at one with the heartbeat of the song rising up to fill the air: “I got shoes, You got shoes, all God’s children got shoes..” My voice easily finds the harmony it has found all my life at the family table, on long car rides away, on shorter car rides back home, in church, and as we picketed on the sidewalks outside the local Woolworth’s. As the chorus grows stronger, I am feeling the presence of those who had the courage long before us to put some battered shoes on their weary feet and march away from the enslavement of those who would never know the gift of who they were inside. “Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven ain’t going there!” The familiar songs and my voice’s place in them connect me now to my story, the family story, the story the family tells about my people’s story, the gift of who I am. The singing itself transforms fear into courage and brings me home to myself.
Two hours later, as I step down off of the bus in the now hot, crowded city, my body is moved into the March with the others. It is a march I’ve been on as long as I can remember and I feel no crush in the crowd – only a oneness with a people who know how to bring strength out of struggle, people marching home to ourselves.
We are gathered, now in that oneness, a carpet of colorful humanity, shoulder to shoulder, singing, listening to speeches, some shouting back, all of us joined by our common struggle to manage our hot, sweaty, thirsty selves and our aching feet.
I sit on the grass beside the reflecting pool, my right hand gently sweeping through the cool, calming water. Then in a moment I cannot recollect the beginning of but will never forget being in the midst of, Martin Luther King Jr. speaks these words into a thundering silence: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” 2
In this moment by the healing waters of the reflecting pool, I know that Martin Luther King, Jr. sees me, sees us, as a people. He is not seeing us by the color of our skin or the circumstances of our lives, but by the gathered gifts in which we “live and move and have our being.” As Dr. King speaks of his dream, the nightmarish demons of institutionalized racism give way to a new dream in me. His words become forever the words to my story, our story, and in the cool waters of that healing moment, the fever of the sweltering day dissipates into the humid summer air. I turn in this healing moment of my heart’s gladness toward a life-time’s vocation: seeking to open doors that every child will be free to come in and come home to themselves.
1 Paula Lawrence Wehmiller, A Gathering of Gifts (Friends Council on Education Tyson-Mason Paper 1988) 2 Paula Lawrence Wehmiller, Mister Rogers Neighborhood, Keeper of the Dream, ( Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1996)