They Never Told Me

They never told me that I could not make the world better. They never told me that it is hard to be really kind. They never said it cannot be done...and so I kept tilting at windmills. They never said be good; be just and loving. They just said good luck.

I fought early on for the patch of playground dirt, near the jungle gym, that we third-graders wanted. Just a corner away from the others, but the fth-grade bullies took me to the side—to pound me down. NO, they said, it is our playground—all of it.

My mother said, Let go of the ground, John. Let them keep their dirt; it is only sand. But I said, No, I will take the pounding, the turning me into pulp because it is ours, because it is our playground too.

My mother drove me to school that morning with Chia sitting in the backseat. Everyone was quiet until I said, “I hope it happens today, the pounding.” My mother kissed me on the forehead and hugged me. “You’ll be okay,” she said. My rst-grade sister stared blankly at me. She did not know that I was going into battle, maybe even to my death. I turned to each of my womenfolk as I closed the door and lied, “Don’t worry, I know I’ll be OK. I just want the ght to happen today. I am ready to ght all of them.”

But it never happened. No pounding, no ceding of territory to the older bullies, and no death by st. I stood my ground, fought for what was right, and marched on. Then one morning, many years later, just as the May sun rose, I saw men in blue with billy clubs and gas masks walk slowly across Harvard Yard. I stood with the protesters on the Widener steps; we held our non-violence credo close, to what was right. We watched the assault ordered by President Pusey to rid University Hall of the occupiers— my roommate and our classmates, who were just saying, NO more war, no more lies.

This was the beginning. There were many more marches as clubs fell, heads were smashed, and our blood streamed. This is what they wanted. I heard the screams during that dawn raid. Cambridge police bashing Harvard heads. The end of civility, no more discourse, no more talk across the picket lines. We will tear it down, blow up the banks, stop the war.

No, you won’t; we will not let you turn our worlds upside down. We know what real war is about and that is why we ght

The bombs continued to drop over Vietnam, turning the jungles orange, but here our eyes no longer sparkled bright, our sts pushed the Bill of Rights into our parents’ faces. They—you—lied to us. They beat us; yes, your minions beat our bodies across college campuses that spring of 1969. And you wondered why the cities burned and our dinner tables turned dark.

They never said the revolution would be easy, or that they would ght back. They never said that the ordered rows of library books, the lies about communist threats were fabrications, or that our parents and hometowns would never be the same. They never said that police billy clubs and bullets would change everything. They never knew what happened.

But we all stepped over the line. There was no turning back; the revolution turned us around, it happened not with the billy clubs or blood, but with sentences we spoke to blank stares. They never heard.

Something died, day by day back in 1969, as we fought, and protested, red st painted on banners, blood streaming down our faces and people dying everywhere.

This was not right, this was not the home I knew, this was not why I walked the streets.

Today I look at the same school buildings, the piece of dirt that I fought for, and the pounding that did not happen in third-grade, and the one that did in 1969. I look down and to each side and say, I still believe in the right, the just, and the fair. I know it isn’t so most of the time, but I still believe. I hear the speeches, I see the meanness and the dead bodies; still.

I say breathe, forgive, and believe, knowing it isn’t always so.

They never told me that, never said it would be easy, never said I would be tested every day. Yet, I hold onto the dreams to come. The sun shines on the day; the birds sing as they y south, and there is still love.

They never said this living was easy, and they were right. Let them pound away; I will be okay.