Deep in my heart, I do believe
Chief Massasoit sold the town to Miles Standish in 1649 for some coats, hatchets and knives. The land was low and swampy in the east, rising to rolling pastures and fertile ground in the west. The business of making a life played out over the generations. Families settled, young men went off to war, fortunes rose and fell. Our big holiday was Memorial Day. All of the veterans put on their full dress uniform and marched at the head of the parade into the town cemetery. Small flags decorated the gravestones of each fallen soldier. The color guard fired off a 21-gun salute, in memory of their comrades, their struggle and the freedom of the country they had served.
Our teachers came from other places and brought new ideas like viruses. Our friends buried brothers and fathers, black coffins shipped over across oceans from a mysterious jungle land. The country was changing and the things we heard about made sense. Rough sense, but sense nonetheless.
Mr. Polino taught sixth grade. He was sweet on Mrs. Davenport and he lived over the hardware store in a little apartment. He wore thin ties and kept his hair short. He burned with passion.
One September day he brought in a record by Pete Seeger. My father liked him and I’d heard his music before. Joan Baez too, and Judy Collins, because my father was seduced the sultry lilt of their voices, and believed that there was a lot of injustice in our country that men and women braver than him would fight against.
Mr. Polino cued up the song: “We Shall Overcome.” He taught us the words and we practiced in stately innocence.
When we had it right, Mr. Polino had us all stand together at the front of the class. He climbed onto his desk and began to read from a piece of paper.
“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand…” When he finished the speech, the lanky young man started to sing in a sour key: “O deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day.”
He climbed down from the desk into our midst and took two of our hands. He walked down the aisle and around the corner of the room. We fell in and joined his song. Our voices filled with power and matched the rhythm of our steps. Mr. Polino opened the classroom door and we marched out into the hallway, our song echoing off the concrete walls and linoleum floor.
We marched, 25 or so white children in a little New England town, singing the anthem of rights and protest, down the hallway of our old school, with our friends and rivals pouring out of their classes in excitement, lining the walls, and we felt like we were doing something important, that something big was happening, and that we could be part of it, just by caring and believing, just by knowing that everyone had the right to a dream, and that when we recognized that right we gave them something that they deserved.
We marched on and spilled out onto the stairs of the school, giddy with excitement. The sun was an elixir. It felt like a new day.