The 11th grade homeroom high school history teacher had me suspended for not putting hand to heart to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I declared there was no justice for all. That teacher kept me after school to copy the tattered United States history textbook in longhand. This was my penalty, he alleged, for passing a note in class. This occurred a day after I watched him slip my father money for a vote into the state’s House of Representatives. His two years there were eventually trumped by four in federal prison for extortion. I still managed to finagle my way onto a Y-Teen field trip to Washington D.C. for a White House tour and Kodak moment on the Capitol steps. I even managed to steal out of the hotel at night for sneak-a-peek at the corner of 14th and T Streets where a man bounced snake eyes off my shoes and where later riots would erupt. Yet my sharpest memory is waking inside the warm hum and dim of the Greyhound bus in an open field near Hagerstown to three crosses burning, something I had earlier dismissed as mere illustrations in a book I labored like a bored archivist a whole school term to reproduce. Civics lesson.
The next time I was in D. C., I walked into a Dupont Circle convenience store where across the television set a breaking news story blared: Martin Luther King. Jr. had been assassinated in a Memphis motel. The cashier hollering: “It’s about time someone shut that one up.” Outside, business owners scrawled Soul Brother across their boarded-up shops under a sky thick with smoke layered like low-flung storm clouds. Police in swat gear with crackling megaphones cleared the streets and blocked the bridges. “All You Need Is Love” blasted from speakers propped in an apartment house window. Like so many before and after, I signed on, sat in, marched, protested, and carried signs believing that raising my voice would make words matter. Civics lesson.
The day after an unlikely president has been elected, high school students in my small neighborhood staged walk-outs with students in Los Angeles and San Francisco, Berkeley and Portland, New York City and Boston – lifting their voices for those who would or could not lift theirs in bible belts, rust belts, through gun country with bullies on an upswing. Across mountains and plains, past farmlands and desert sands, along highways and waterways, white power slogans decorate garages and sheds of working poor neighborhoods like so many military medals on plackets. So today as a Klan-backed white man is about to replace the first black man in the White House, I simply contented myself to be stuck in traffic behind local teenagers waving rainbow flags and hoisting Love Trumps Hate placards, making their own pledges in chants of One Right – Human Rights, elementary school children out for recess, their fingers latched to the chain link fence and quietly watching – civics lesson!
Andrena Zawinski is an award winning poet and educator. She has authored three full collections of poetry and four chapbooks. Her work appears widely in print and online. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA, she has made the San Francisco Bay Area her home where she runs a Woman’s Poetry Salon. She is also Features Editor at PoetryMagazine.com