We sat–quietly and obediently–in rows facing the front of the room. Most of the girls wore frilly dresses, bangs, and patent-leather shoes; the boys sported bold-striped shirts, crew cuts, and bright-white Keds.
Our mornings and early afternoons were occupied with simple math, spelling, reading, recess, and cartons of cold milk on lunch trays. The American flag draped over the alphabet border above the blackboard.
Images of George, Abraham, and John–Washington, Lincoln, and Kennedy–stood guard. I suspect they were there to ease our minds and protect our American innocence.
If only it were that simple.
I don’t remember feeling fear, when our teacher told us it was time for another drill. We knew the routine and followed instructions.
A voice on the public address system told us when to practice hiding under our desks, when to duck and cover, when to escape to fallout shelters in hallways if a bomb were dropped.
It lasted but a few minutes. We covered our heads and faces until the all-clear signal came from our teacher. We absorbed the fear–the height of the Cold War–without knowing what it was.
This was what we knew in the early 1960s in middle America. We were fortunate these were merely practice drills, false alarms.
I imagine the scenes weren’t much different in schools on the outskirts of Chicago, Cincinnati or Cleveland. At Mesnier School in Affton–ten miles from downtown St. Louis–we aspired to a gleaming symbol. We lived in the shadow of an emerging national monument.
By its completion in 1965, the Gateway Arch would soar, though across the nation the fog of pollution and social issues intensified.
As history would have it, all of the names of St. Louis school children would be stored in a time capsule in the base of the Arch. Mine is among them.
Back in the classroom, between random drills and parent-teacher conferences, we learned to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. We tied our shoes and kept on skipping in a world where rules were prescribed narrowly for girls and boys.
This was the credo for boys: Get good grades in school. Be prepared. Keep your eye on the ball. Run faster. Jump higher. Find a decent job. Don’t be a sissy. Meet and marry a woman. Buy a house. Have kids. Keep your nose to the grindstone. Pass the baton to the next generation.
But what about those of us who are different? Where do we fit into the story? We had to figure that out for ourselves.
The sixties weren’t pretty. Assassinations reigned. The Vietnam War raged. Poverty and racism amplified. People felt trapped, ready to shed the remnants of restrictive gender roles and sexuality, sealed in the repressive 1950s.
But the world is exponentially more complicated now. The latest madman is hellbent on ravaging innocent people in Ukraine. Though love appears in abundance in many circles across all continents, ignorance and hate manifest themselves next door and around the world.
Once again, sixty years later, we find ourselves living in fear of the fallout. We must find ways to duck and cover, to speak the truth while standing as tall and mighty as the Gateway Arch.
We owe it to our children and grandchildren to put politics aside, to protect our planet, to uphold individual rights and civil liberties, to teach them about black and white, but also the color and grayness of the world and all its permutations. Pandemic or not, they are watching.
Even if they don’t know it, the youngest members of our society are counting on us to speak the truth, denounce racism and hate, celebrate gay and straight lives, and to teach them that every generation has a responsibility to remember and honor the seminal moments in history, and–hopefully–carry the best of humanity forward.