Monday, January 16, 2012

Dear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Back in 1983, I wrote my first letter to you thanking you for how the legacy of your life made my attendance at Poly Prep Country Day School possible. An all-boys, all-white school in Brooklyn, New York, opened its doors to girls in 1977, and I joined that first incoming group of girls. In the spring of 1983, I was the first black girl to graduate from that amazing school "way down on the heights called Dyker." As a result of writing that letter, memorizing it, and reciting it in front of the student body, I was awarded a gold medal in Poly's annual Bearns Speaking Contest for extemporaneous speech.

 The courtyard at Poly

Six years later, I returned to Poly, Dr. King, as a teacher and college counselor. Soon thereafter, I wrote another letter to you, telling you how much the school had changed in those few years: there were so many more students from so many more backgrounds, with names, languages, head coverings, and holiday celebrations that more closely resemble the reality of the city in which the school stands and the world in which we all lived. I stood at the podium in front of the student body one morning and read the original letter along with the one I had more recently penned. As I read the two letters, I wept, but  then again I cry fairly easily. Upon completing the readings, I looked up and through the veil of tears, I watched the student body and faculty rise to their feet and applaud. Together, we were living out another manifestation of your dream.

The stage from which my letters were recited and read

When I returned to Poly for my 20 year reunion, I wrote you a third letter and read it to the alumni gathered in the chapel that day. Poly, with all its faults and deep divides, is a place where students of all religions, races, and backgrounds are still welcome. I remain grateful to this day for the six years I spent there on campus in the shadow of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. The Poly path felt wide on that campus - wide enough for me to grow, to laugh, to run track, to play basketball, to meet my first serious boyfriend, and even to be suspended for drinking while not losing the respect of the faculty or other students. (Sorry, Mr. Jones, for ordering that beer on our choir trip to Washington, DC.)

Today, as we celebrate your birthday, Dr. King, I want you to know that your life, your death, and your legacy continue to cast a bright light into, over, around, and through every area of my life.

As I write this letter today, I sit at my desk in our beautiful home in Charlotte, North Carolina. My white husband is down the hall in his "man cave" watching the Australian Open Tennis Tournament. Our gorgeous, intelligent, fearless two children are in their bedrooms doing whatever they are doing, almost completely unaware of the price you paid so that this family in this home in this neighborhood in this city in this state in this region of this nation could even be possible.

Certainly, they know about the history of this country, especially the South in which we live. They know about sit-ins and marches and lynchings and Jim Crow laws, but thanks be to God and thanks be to your sacrifice, they don't know what it is to not be able to swim in public pools, to not sit at lunch counters and be served, to not be able to play tennis at certain clubs, to not be able to attend certain churches, colleges, or to not be able to see movies while sitting on the first floor of the theater. In fact, I'm not sure if my children have ever gone to a movie theater with a balcony. They have never been turned away from a hotel, a beach, an airport, a water fountain, a seat on a bus or train, or been denied service at a gas station because of the color of their skin or my skin or the combination that makes up our multi-shaded family.

After further investigation, I can report that our daughter, Kristiana, is applying henna to her hair and watching a movie on netflix. Our son, Daniel, is watching tennis on television. And I'm sitting here at my computer, weeping, thinking about your children. They lost you in the battle that made my life, the lives of my children, and our family's life possible. Their tragic loss led to so many tremendous victories.

My soul finds rest in God alone. But today, my soul finds extra comfort and a slightly wider sliver of rest in the knowledge that your life was not lived in vain. There are no words to express my gratitude. But I will use the customary ones offered at times like this - Thank you, Dr. King. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Happy birthday to you. 
Forever in your debt, Gail

1 comment:

CoachD said...

First, and foremost, God bless you, Gail. You are one of God's beautiful creations (in body AND soul)! Secondly, thank you Dr. King. My greatest inspiration. Every year at my birthday I read your kind words from our time together, and it truly inspires me. Of course, it takes me an hour+ to leave your blog because of all the wonderful posts. But most of all I crave hearing about Daniel. He touched my heart like no other. It's unexplainable. To this day, my fondest memories include Daniel. My youngest is 11 this year, and we still run Play #2 (with POP, pick-and-rolls, backdoor cuts, and all). I still see Daniel gliding on the court. But more than that, I still see how he treated his teammates, his opponents, his parents, his sister, and his coach. It is an amazing gift to be inspired by a child. God is Great. With regards & love to your family, Coach "D"