Wrought Mettle

The autumn before the assassinations
my high school homework folder proclaimed
“Make Love Not War” in peace-child font,
innocent of the slang’s implication.

Small-check uniform skirts rolled up at the waist
defeating the kickpleat’s modesty,
houndsteeth ready to bite received wisdom.

We had seen the images from Birmingham and Selma,
our Milwaukee right now, where priest-led fair housing marches
met violent white hecklers, cherry bomb hurlers, and police complicity,
judges and city fathers loving thy matching neighbor.

“Question Authority” beckoned our consciousness,
rebellious yet timid, green but ablaze,
anxious to test the “truths”
yet hesitant to unravel the codes of catechism.

          We were studying The Crucible in English class,
          what happens to bold young women.

Then, in Modern History, our freshmen faces alert
above a grid of demerit-safe white blouses,
studying the threshold of our births,
“irrelevant” yet compelling, our parents’ prior world.

          HUAC, the blacklists,
          speech and association in peril
          propelled by McCarthy, that son of Appleton,
          papermill stronghold of rightwing John Bircher’s.

“McCarthy’s witch hunts ruined countless lives,” Miss Kent observed.

One of the Erin’s, quiet in the back row, gathered her breath.
“I wish you wouldn’t say those things
about my Uncle.”

Gasping heads snapped up, spines froze
in endless seconds of airless waiting, in fear for Miss Kent,
in fear for Erin, thrilled by her nerve, stunned
by our sudden proximity to infamy.

We looked at each other and at Miss Kent,
impeccable, calm, assessing:

          “He may be your uncle, but he did those things.”

In my memory class went on,
Miss Kent, unruffled integrity, tall above us;
Erin, in thought, our friend no less.

Green blazers draping the wooden backs
of metal-framed chairs, absorbing hard fact.
We learned twice that day to speak out in truth.

(Names have been changed to protect the brave.) 

—Jo Scheder, Madison, WI