The late morning beach requires windbreaker and hoodie both. Most human neighbors have not ventured out. We do, kicking off our shoes and regretting it almost at once. Dune grass and broken shells slice our reddened feet.
Out at the edge of the water under the low sun, the ground is uneven in a spot. Dark. Probably rubbish, a black tote blown away and left behind. But no, it takes shape as we near it. A bird. A black skimmer, one of the endangered of this island. White and brown feathers ruffling in the wind. It seems larger now than when its kind fly low, skating along the cresting waves. It is bent in a way it shouldn’t be. Large, like a Halloween pillowcase, like a wedding cake someone dropped. It gains substance in its stillness.
Sylvia Mendez was nine years old when she became the center of the landmark court case, Mendez v. Westminster. Parents and neighbors joined together in a fight to desegregate education for children of Mexican descent in southern California. The 1947 court decision banned segregation in California public schools and paved the way for the national ban on school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education seven years later.
On her first day at school after winning the case, Sylvia recalls a white boy coming up to her and telling her she didn’t belong. She says, “I was crying and crying, and told my mother, ‘I don’t want to go to the white school!’ My mother said, ‘Sylvia, you were in court every day. Don’t you know what we were fighting? We weren’t fighting so you could go to that beautiful white school. We were fighting because you’re equal to that white boy.” (LA Times)
It’s easy to hold up these historic figures as superhuman. It seems they are made of sturdier stuff than us average folk. But Sylvia Mendez was herself a reluctant hero. Her name was on that important decision, but she didn’t feel brave and fierce.
Maybe her connections to her family and her community mattered to her more than the abstract idea of equality. And maybe it was from the strength of those connections that Sylvia drew her sense of purpose.
Sylvia went on to a successful career as a pediatric nurse. For decades, Sylvia didn’t think much about Mendez v. Westminster. Then her father died and her mother became very ill. In a conversation about the case, her mother told her, “It’s history of the United States, history of California. Sylvia, you have to go out and talk about it!” Hesitant at first but guided by her mother’s conviction, Sylvia began vising schools to tell the story of her family’s fight for civil rights.
Since her retirement from nursing, Mendez’ work has grown into a nationwide effort to help students succeed. She sees the de facto segregation that still exists in American education today, particularly in the scarce resources of schools in poor communities and communities of color. She wants all students have the opportunity that she did, and she has dedicated herself to advocating for educational equity.
Behind most hero myths lurks a story of uncertainty, hesitancy, and detours. Something propels (or drags) the protagonist to the path they are meant to walk. Mendez’ connections to her family called her back to courage.
For each of us, such a force exists. Maybe hidden, maybe silent, likely disquieting, most certainly mighty.
Surely it is not art. She pulls her phone from her pocket and steps to the stage. Her first time. Tapping the screen, she balances it on the ancient music stand. Grips the mic with both hands. Through ums and mumbles, she describes a man who called it love before the girl learned the proper name for abuse.
Surely this is not poetry, nowhere close to art.
Art you know. You saw Gipsy Kings at the Barns and walked Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors at the Hirshhorn. You can recite Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” by heart.
Here comes the babysitter. You’re pumped. His appearance promises a night of board games, TV, living room dance parties. He’ll make mac & cheese for dinner and skip the broccoli entirely. Turn up the volume on bands you’ve never heard of. Dress up like a Sith Lord and let you annihilate him after a protracted battle that covers every floor of the house.
You may pass several hours draped in sequins and spiked on sugar. Playing, yes. But for show, not for keeps. Playing for this night only. Playing with the door closed.
The babysitter has one job: keeping you safe until your parents get home.
So many sweet successes, each alone more than enough.
Today, a group of emerging higher ed superstars wrapped up our yearlong Leadership Legacy program. Before the university president’s speech, before certificates and applause and cake, participants shared the ideas for change we’d launched into existence. It thrilled me to describe an alumni mentor initiative that’s now charging forward, with current PhD students paired with graduates. This program aims to retain and support the success of underrepresented students (first-generation and students of color) by offering a connection with graduates from similar backgrounds.
The women arrive carrying ceramic bowls of muffins and popcorn. They introduce themselves and shrug out of winter coats, peel the backs off name tags, jot words on green post-its and find seats around the room.
We set up the easel, the flip chart, the clipboards, the jar full of pens.
We share our names, our role models in the movement, the things that make us smile.
I take a deep breath and add another 2-1/2 lb weight to either end of the chest press bar. These “graduation” days are bittersweet. Each crossing of a threshold puts the lie to the comforting narrative that I’m only so capable, only so strong. If I keep surpassing my own limits, I might start to believe that most of them are self-imposed. How in the world can I avoid living my full life under those conditions?
Someone is pooping in my neighborhood. On the edge of the path that connects the playground to the AT&T parking lot, a pile of black feces swarms with silver-winged flies. They are doing the important work. All around the heap of waste are scattered thick restaurant napkins, crushed, stained with smears. Someone squatted right here. Right where our kiddos play. Not in the brambles, not behind a tree, but right here. When he (because I assume it’s a he, who else would be so bold?) finished, he left his tissue all over the ground. The garbage can is 20 paces away, and there is another at each corner of the park. Continue reading “Our Shadows Live Here Too”→
On bike, top of hill, foot down. Red light. It was green as I was climbing but turned yellow before I could get through. It’s a quiet Saturday, holiday weekend. A few cars cross in front of me, no one behind me. The rotation complete, my turn next, I step on the pedals and inch out. The light stays red, though. It is red as oncoming traffic starts to enter and turn left. Because no drivers had joined me on my side of the intersection, the signal never kicked to green. I could wait here all day at a red light that stays red. Instead, I press through. The oncoming drivers pause for two extra beats to wait for me before turning left across the empty lane.
A man jams his body halfway out of his driver’s side window. His head, arm, torso look like they’re about to climb out after me. He screams across the road, “Why don’t you obey the law, you fucking idiot!”
I catch my breath and keep riding.
Through my head race all the answers I would say if his were a real question. Louder than my imagined response is the clang clang clang of his fury: “You fucking idiot, you fucking idiot, you. . .” For the next mile at least, I tense at every approaching engine, sure he’s whipped around to come after me. Will my helmet work when he clips me and I flip onto the side of the road? It’s a quiet, leafy neighborhood. People are out. Surely someone will see it and call 911.
Downstairs is the Cave of Dudes. It is where the free-weights line up in rows by the mirror, where contraptions pierced through with grimy iron bars and corsets of straps hunch in the corners and dare you to approach. Someone has squeezed a couple of treadmills in at the back. They are the wireless kind that run on human power instead of electricity. The robot machines are quartered in the vast gallery upstairs, a whole army of them blinking out their perfectly calibrated, simulated tracks on LED screens.
Down in the cave, incline benches. Pull-up bars. Clangs and grunts. Some days, most days, I’m the only gal down there.