I woke up in 1968. At ten-years-old, I was bubbled within the safety of my family and school. I lived in a tidy house on a quiet dead-end street, with my parents, three sisters, and baby brother. There was a yard to run through and sidewalks to bicycle on. Weekends were spent with cousins—my first best friends. My dad went to work each day, repaired everything from loose stoop railings to a handyman-special boat, and played silly rug games with my siblings and me before bedtime. Mom kept house, cooked dinner each night, and being a modern woman, taught science in the district’s high school. The refrigerator and pantry were always full. I always had clean clothes, felt safe and was unconditionally loved. As a child, I believed this to be every kid’s normal life.
My parents bought their first house in Amity Harbor, a neighborhood in the hamlet of Copiague. The town was diverse. The locals consisted of baymen, farmers, and tradesmen who could trace their lineage to the Dutch and English colonist, Native Americans, and slaves. Post-WWII expansions in technology, transportation, and education, and the promise of single dwelling homes and backyard gardens lured young people to suburbia. They were first and second generation European immigrants who moved out of their urban homes to Long Island. Like the city, little neighborhoods developed within school district lines that kept local people in their areas and new-comers in theirs.
My parents were raised in Brooklyn, New York and comfortably went to school amongst diverse communities. Deauville Gardens Elementary School in the Copiague School District was a good choice for their brood. According to my memory, it was. Classes were not overcrowded. The day began with the Pledge of Allegiance. My studies included the perils of Dick and Jane, SRA reading programs, and math drills.
I vividly remember milk breaks. At mid-morning, a student or two brought in trays of one-pint milk cartons that were left outside the classroom door. The milk was always warm but had to be sipped dry since there were starving children in China, Puerto Rico and by 5th grade, Vietnam.
Of course, recess was the best part of the day. There was a small field for the boys to kick a ball through and one swing set. Asphalt covered the rest of the playground. We girls chanted hand games, played double-Dutch jump rope while singing rhymes to keep the time, and drew hopscotch boards with a rock on the asphalt. We were kids, liked any other kids, learning and playing together.
But the 60s was a restless time. President Kennedy was shot when I was in the first grade. The vice principal interrupted reading groups, announce the assassination, quickly wipe her nose and eyes with the lace handkerchief, then ran out to deliver the news to the next classroom. Soon the hallway echoed with the wales of mourning teachers. There were regular air raid drills. Kids hid under their desk, arms covering heads. My second-grade teacher recited the Lord’s Prayer over the deafening alarm.
The Vietnam War played out on TV each night, and the newspapers’ front pages blared the horror. My parents said it was a terrible war far away from our home. It didn’t seem so far away when, in the fifth-grade, my classmate’s brother was killed, and another’s father was missing in the jungle.
The event that shook me awake was Martin Luther King’s murder. I came home that day and told my mother that there were Negro kids in my class and a lot more in the whole school. The fact was black children greatly outnumbered the white children in Dueville Garden Elementary School. Suddenly I noticed the differences. Negro children wore the same clothes each day. Their fingernails were dirty, their glasses were held together with electrical tape, and the soles of their shoes flopped. I never thought to ask why my friend’s mother didn’t pack her a cookie to help swallow that warm milk each day. I just shared mine. I had no awareness that she did not live with her mom and never knew her dad.
The assignation triggered local tensions. There were fist pumping rallies and brutalities committed in nearby towns. Although I did not understand the issues, I saw that it just wasn’t fair. Negro kids were kids, just like me, my sisters, little brother, cousins, and neighborhood kids. We all went to school to learn to read and write and play games together. Why couldn’t the Negro kids have the food and clothing they needed and be as safe and loved as me? Where was their hope?
It wasn’t fair. I am ashamed that it took violence towards a man who practiced and preached peace to shake the injustices into view. After fifty years since his murder, King’s words still echo truth. He continues to call us to work hard for equality so that all of us may learn and play together, color blind, in these United States of America. There is still so much to do.
Antoinette Truglio Martin is the author of Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer. The memoir is a wimpy patient’s journey through her first year of breast cancer treatment.