Monday morning, Martin Luther King Day 2020. The moon is still up, a quarter full and hazy behind clouds. It’s 5 a.m. in the high desert, too dark to see how much of the sky is overcast and how much is clear.
My dharma teacher mentioned white awakening only once in the week-long meditation retreat I sat in December. She said it on the last day, in a rundown of seminars available to affinity groups at a Buddhist center where she teaches. She’s part Comanche, a bloodline known for its fierce fighting and resistance. Throughout the week, when she counseled on practices for right speech, she emanated warmth. She met me in individual meetings, seeing clearly and wisely holding herself apart.
On the day of Martin’s death, April 4, 1968, I was a student at King Junior High School in Oakland. The mixed-race school was named for a different King, someone I’ve read about but can’t remember. My siblings and I were bussed to the school from a quiet neighborhood in the Oakland hills. My family wasn’t wealthy by any stretch, and we were nature kids. For fun we explored the woods of expansive regional parks behind our pocket development of three-bedroom houses. We were fortunate in ways we didn’t know.
At King I met kids who lived in poverty, who were raised by one parent or a grandparent, who came to school without getting breakfast and sometimes had to skip lunch. Some also skipped their homework, a foreign thing to me. Some of the least well off at home were also the most beautiful, best-dressed kids.
This morning, ice frosts the scene outside my home overlooking the playa. An ephemeral lakebed, it’s broken now by icebergs. The day will be overcast. Mountains shoulder banks of cloud. Here in the high desert, where I direct a small art and science community, the populations is overwhelmingly white, diverse in other ways.
At King, frequent fights broke out in the halls, sometimes between kids with different color skins, sometimes among close friends who’d become rivals, mostly for reasons I didn’t understand. I never went to watch, in case of an errant knife blade. Girls ripped out each other’s earrings, it was said, and boys pulled “cake cutters” on each other–sharp combs used to groom the newly popular Afros.
Once in symphonic band class, we were in the middle of rehearsal when someone shouted “Fight!” from the hallway. Immediately our teacher/conductor threw his baton onto the podium and ran out to break things up. Until then, I’d never considered him courageous.
My Comanche dharma teacher looked at me more closely when I talked about feeling less visible with the years. I shared my growing awareness of judging a book by its cover. She glanced at my hands, maybe the rings on them. She said that in her culture, elders gained respect as they became senior in the community. She advised me to be clear in my communication, to pause, to practice. She’d studied with Thich Nhat Hanh and referred me back to his book Anger.
With practice, the pain of being set apart would ease.
Against all my inclinations, I ran for student-body treasurer of King. I loved math and thought I could bring my passion to bear on class finances. Popular kids of all backgrounds held the highest offices: the president a star athlete of color who wore a fashionable trench coat, the vice president his female counterpart, maybe even his girlfriend.
In the two classes we shared–French and Social Studies–the star-athlete-student-body-president watched the clock constantly. I heard from someone that he hated my voice; in fact I saw him wince once when I raised my hand to answer the teacher’s question. The day Martin was shot and we were to be released from school at lunchtime, the star kept his eyes on the wall clock, waiting for the noon bell.
Our social studies teacher gave us the news that Martin had “died.” As for being let out of school mid day, there wouldn’t be the usual school busses. It was up to us to call our parents to be picked up. Or we could cross the overpass near the school to catch a city bus on the far side of the freeway.
My closest friend in that class, a young woman of color and straight-A student, whispered to me that Martin had been murdered by a white man. She hinted there would be riots.
I’ve been a practitioner of meditation since 1976. Only in the last five years have I added Buddhist dharma to my practice. One of my teachers, Zen master and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, writes, “Martin Luther King was among us as a brother, as a friend, as a leader . . . his understanding and love was enough to hold everything to him.”
That first day that Martin could no longer hold everything to him, home for me was about five miles on rural roads from King. My mom was in classes for a college degree and wasn’t available by phone. My younger brother Jon and I stood out front of school with a friend, Suyin. Her mother worked in the State Assembly and was rarely in town. We were carrying our musical instruments because the same friend who said there’d be riots also suggested that, “If the school burns, you’ll be liable for them.”
We took her advice. I lugged my French horn and Jon carried his trumpet. Along with Suyin we toted all our schoolbooks. We headed toward the overpass to see if we could catch one of those city buses across the freeway. Behind us, some of the released students were already breaking school windows.
In symphonic band at King, the map of players put me right in front of the trombonists–always entertaining. The lead trombone, a young man of color, was a good musician and serious about it. He’d rarely drop his focus, but when he did it was to joke with me. I’d turn and giggle at some inane thing until the conductor-teacher got enough of it and barked my name.
On April 4, half-dozen or so King students ran past Jon, Suyin, and me. Instead of heading for the buses, they stopped about twenty yards past us on the overpass. Among them were the athlete president and gorgeous vice president. They and their friends lined both sides of the walkway, facing us with something new in their eyes.
Suyin got a nosebleed. “My nose is bleeding!” she cried. “My nose is bleeding!” Somehow we staunched that and decided to go forward. As we threaded the gauntlet of kids, tension thick, one of them leaned over my brother, small at the time, and raised his fists as if to strike him. I tightened my grip on my horn and considered swinging it as a club. We three stood there a moment, muscles tensed.
All the while, the vice president, who’d been so pleasant–in fact her last name was something close to that–had a taunting smile I’d never seen on her.
bell hooks, a student of Thich, writes, “Mere diversity without real encounter and relationship will yield increasing tensions in our societies . . . Pluralism is not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference . . . Pluralism is based on dialogue.” At the time, dialogue across our lines was rare, and I considered it only as fraught as other things about adolescence.
After a long moment, the kids let us by, I relaxed my arm with its poised horn, and we continued over the overpass. We didn’t make it onto a bus, but someone’s mother who’d heard about Martin picked us up. She dropped us at a Catholic school somewhere along the way. We stayed in the principal’s office until mom got home and I could call her. Undisturbed, the kids at the Catholic school continued with their lessons.
Later we heard there’d been beatings, and the courageous conductor-teacher had been seen stuffing kids onto buses. He didn’t return to teach the following year. Some parents pulled their kids out of King for good. The rest of us returned to classes when school reopened after a long weekend of being closed. Amazingly, no adult helped frame the experience in any way–except my mom. Her comment: she couldn’t believe all the kids were let out to fend for themselves.
I finished my term on student council, and I never spoke to the president and vice president again. I didn’t know how. The beautiful vice president didn’t look triumphant, just sad.
The trombonist stopped joking with me. When he met my gaze, it was only from the corner of his eyes. After we graduated King, I attended Piedmont High School in the east bay hills and he went to Castlemont in west Oakland. I stayed in music and met new tromobonists, all white like me.
Remembering Martin, thinking of Thich, I start where I am. My Comanche dharma teacher schooled me on what she called “microaggressions,” the daily abuses seen in social structures with power differentials. As a continuing nature nerd, I take lessons from what I see here now. There are the ravens, who as a friend says, “are hated on.” There are the ecosystems and wildlife coping with change: wildfire, drought, heat. There are the neighbors of diverse economic means.
Thich also writes of Martin, “He was trying to transmit his best things to us–his goodness, his love, his nonduality . . . We have to be aware that the crucial transmission he was making was not the transmission of power, of authority, of position, but the transmission of the dharma. It means love.”
It means holding our selves and others as gently as possible.
Find my most recent book of essays, The Oasis This Time: Living and Dying with Water in the West (Torrey House Press, 2019), at your local bookseller, Indie Bound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.