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What I Believed In Back Then


Although I didn’t know much about the details of politics growing up, 1960s public schools were rich with optimism and patriotism in those days. John F. Kennedy had been elected president, and this was long before anyone was exposing sixth graders to scandal and backroom political deals. Grammar school kids were the perfect audience to believe that Camelot was not just a popular musical, but a true-to-life depiction of all the good things that were happening in our country. Needless to say, I grew up as a die-hard idealist when it came to democracy and all it promised.

Of course it wasn’t very long before I realized what a bill of goods I’d been sold by my very white, male-dominated textbooks. But at the time, riding my Schwinn through the streets of our lower middle class, white suburban neighborhood, it seemed like everything democracy promised was going to come true. We would all have our equal shot and we could all achieve whatever we set out minds to. I can safely say now that my world was very small back then.

Never once did it occur to me to wonder why I had to keep my own sexuality a secret if this was really "the land of the free and home of the brave.”

In 1963, the fall I turned 12, the students at my middle school were brought into the multipurpose room for an assembly. The speakers were from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I have no idea how I knew this, but I remember that this was a somewhat “controversial” presentation. Young African American men in suits stood in front of us, painting pictures of the lives of our black, southern counterparts—middle school kids in places like Georgia and Alabama. Unlike us, in our white, suburban, Sacramento classrooms, they were learning in poor, segregated schools, essentially after-thoughts of a national education system that had all but forgotten them. This is when I began to notice the fraying around the edges of the tapestry those social studies textbooks had woven.

When Kennedy was assassinated a couple of months later, I started seeing what was really behind the curtain. The years that followed were filled with more assassinations, civil rights marches in states far from mine, and a war in which many young men my age were being killed. In my first year in college, my political science teacher told us how many people were getting rich on the Vietnam War and how little any of it had to do with those innocent boys who thought they were serving their country.

I felt duped. All those years of pomp and promise that I read about in books like How Our Nation Began was really designed for well-to-do white people, mostly men. When I watch current politics, I think many things, not the least of which is that it must be nearly impossible to trick kids today. At least I hope it is. Unfortunately, it seems that there are lots of people still squinting, believing that all of this is going to work out, and that we all have a fair shake at success if we just work hard enough. When I was young, I was so gullible that I believed in this system with all my heart. My dad was a high school music teacher, and every time his band played The Star Spangled Banner, tears would come to my eyes. Never once did it occur to me to wonder why I had to keep my own sexuality a secret if this was really "the land of the free and home of the brave.”

I don’t want to be a cynical old woman, hollering, “Get off of my lawn” at any random threat that might come my way. I want to believe that we are so much better than this. I want to believe that we all understand what must happen for this country to actually work. Success and equity and justice means that we have to make a point to let people in—not force them out. I’m still a true believer, I think, but now my confidence lies in those of us who know that things must change—not in the wild machinations of some crazy person elected by scared, ill-informed people. I don’t need Camelot now; I need fairness and truth and authentic justice. Nothing less.