How the seeds of revolution planted when she was a fourth-grader in the late ‘60s helped writer Carla Sameth become the rebellious, strong “Sammy Boy” who has learned to survive again and again.
In 1968 I walked down my street, 34th Avenue in south Seattle, carrying a sign that said, “Make Love Not War.” I was 9 years old, in fourth grade, going with my dad to protest marches against the Vietnam War. My older siblings walked with me to our elementary school, John “Manure” (Muir). I played the trumpet and was the best “girl athlete” in my grade. They called me “Sammy Boy.”
Fourth grade, taught by Mrs. Kumata, is the class I remember most—turns out it was also her first year teaching and her favorite. She held a class reunion when I was in my 20s, the only one I ever attended. Now I’m 56—47 years since fourth grade.
I look back to see what was happening in fourth grade, 1968-69:
I remember my mom crying, watching funeral processions on television. April 4, 1968—Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinated.
June 5, 1968, Robert Kennedy killed at the Ambassador Hotel.
Just after the “Summer of Love.”
Student revolts across the world. Protesters attacked by police. France’s “Bloody Monday”; Mexico City’s Tlatelolco massacre; “Bloody Thursday” at People’s Park in Berkeley.
Escalation, Vietnam War. And protests.
Democratic National Convention in Chicago: Police officers beat protesters unconscious.
I remember mock elections. I was Eldridge Cleaver, a Black Panther. Larry Rock, one of the African-American students, was assigned to play George Wallace. Though adamant that he did not want the part, he played in character with a strong “cracker” Southern accent, “I’m George Wallace, and I’m a liar,” he stated and told his classmates not to vote for him.
The Civil Rights movement.
I remember writing to Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama: “Is it true that it’s illegal in your state for me to marry my Black boyfriend?”
Musical explosion: The Jackson 5 debut, the Grateful Dead, Woodstock, the Beatles, Aretha Franklin and my all-time favorite, “My Cherie Amour” by Stevie Wonder. Dance parties!
And, ugh—Nixon inaugurated.
I decide to go back and interview Mrs. Kumata. She tells me, “I felt it was very important to get along because at the time there was just so much strife. I wanted the kids not to feel that in the classroom. That was a big goal of mine.”
We lived in a somewhat rough part of Seattle. Teachers were not afraid to discipline the bad kids. Kids were tied to chairs; mouths were taped shut. In second grade, Mrs. Stedman ripped the tape off one kid, taking part of his lip.
We marched up red wooden stairs into a huge, beige portable classroom filled with wooden lift-top desks.
Mrs. Kumata tells me, “We had the nicest boys in class. Everyone got along so well—no real fighting in our classroom, but the rest of school was rough, too many kids! Fourteen portables covered the playground, more than a thousand kids.”
The kids I played with at school were of all different skin colors. My best friends were boys—Stanley Haruta, Norris Washington and Stanley Hummel. We were a United Nations mixture of nationalities: Jewish, German, Japanese and African-American. I was “Sammy Boy,” strong and tough on the playground, the only one in my Brownie troop who wasn’t Black. But Mrs. Kumata assured me, “You are something; you’re Jewish.”
I have wondered why that year was so memorable and if some of the other kids from our class felt the same way. So much of whom I aspire to be now seems to be whom I was then.
“It was a scary time, but you were the smartest and best class I ever had,” she tells me. “All the riots were going on around the country. It was a tough place to teach and to go to school.”
Mrs. Kumata kept me after school when she knew we were planning to take out the class bully, Marvin. Norris’ mom had gotten wind of the action too and took him home early. But the other boys went ahead, four or five of them. Everyone got suspended. They all ended up with black eyes—all except Marvin. At our class reunion, I had learned that Marvin was in prison for rape. He is still in prison. Rumor has it he found Jesus.
Mrs. Kumata recently sent me our class picture. A sea of multicolored faces. She has written down almost all of my classmates’ names. I’m standing right next to Mrs. Kumata with an almost identical classic ’60s dress. “I also see you and I had an eye for the fashion with our paisley,” she writes me.
I ask Norris about fourth grade, and he tells me, “It was the year I remember most, the first year I really enjoyed school, became more comfortable with friends, played kickball.”
Mrs. Kumata’s classroom style seemed to play a pivotal role for him, too—though together we remember little beyond the mock elections, creative writing, getting picked out to take a special intelligence test. And this: In a place where classmates came from a wide variety of cultures and economic backgrounds—from huge houses overlooking Lake Washington to the projects on Rainer Avenue—everyone got along. “I met people who were wealthier and grew up in an intellectual tradition,” Norris said.
Two other things stuck out for Norris:
“Pilots—Seattle got its first professional baseball team! Lasted one year.”
“Coming home from the drive-in movie, my father turned on the radio: RFK shot. My dad said, “Oh, my God, they are killing them now …”
When Norris meets my son, he tells him, “Your mom was my hero; she was courageous.”
“How so?” I ask.
He answers, “The way you interacted with teachers—asking questions, being ‘the leader.’ I was extremely shy back then. You were always kind of like, ‘Let’s go do this.’ [Try to beat up the class bully?] We said, great; it was bound to be an adventure.”
Snow days were a glorious battlefield where I could wear my tapered pants. Life seemed wide open. I was fearless, an athlete, an activist. In Mrs. Kumata’s classroom, a strong-nosed, skinny-legged, knob-kneed, adventurous, independent Jewish tomboy was cool.
When I was in fifth grade, my family moved to Bellevue. To us kids, Bellevue was a scary place full of “white, ultra-suburbanite snobs.” By sixth grade, I was last picked for sports; “Sammy Boy” was buried somewhere back in South Seattle.
Many years later I look at a picture of me standing on our porch in the Mt. Baker neighborhood of Seattle, playing the trumpet, belting out “Tijuana Taxi.” The question of “Sammy Boy” will come up for me frequently. Where did he/she go?
Back then, being so comfortable in my skin, strong, rebellious, someone’s hero—that person will become a stranger and then come back throughout my life. That person is me, the same person who is willing to play rugby in college (even as a poor athlete) and willing to consider playing rugby again at age 54, thinking it might save my life. Thinking that if I can do this, I can do anything—I can survive my son’s addiction and the knowledge that I am ultimately powerless over whether he will live or die.
Now, after my son is two years in recovery, I’m suddenly filled with fear and uncertainty as I turn the lens back on me. I often look back and wonder, “Who is that person who did stand-up comedy a year and a half ago, who applied for and started graduate school at age 55?”
That’s me, “Sammy Boy,” the same person who got flown into Simpson Meadow to be on (perhaps) the only all-women backcountry trail crew for the National Park Service when I was about 20 years old. l walked out strong, muscular, unafraid—having proved myself over the course of the summer. It was me on the lifeboat ready to die, but resolving to go back and have a baby. And me in my early 50s, who was told by my Civil Rights attorney about testifying after a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy broke my nose, “You’re stronger than you think.” I had said that I didn’t think I could face it, knowing how the bashed get bashed and the victims get revictimized in the criminal (in)justice process. He must have seen that survivor, the scrappy “Sammy Boy” who stays dormant—buried even—but refuses to die.
“Sammy Boy” will resurface time and time again. Lost and found. What will emerge temporarily from hibernation and what has stayed with me throughout my life is some grain of humor at the #CrayCray Mom, some words that find their way out, the rashness, the tenacity, the intrepidity of survival. Laughter. Connection. My words or yours, a book I’ve read, a book I am writing.
Carla Sameth is a writer, mother and teacher living in Pasadena. Her work has appeared in several anthologies and publications such as Brain, Child, Full Grown People, Mutha Magazine, Longreads, Narratively, Tikkun, Entropy, Pasadena Weekly; Hometown Pasadena, and La Bloga. Her story, “Graduation Day at Addiction High,”which ran in Narratively, was selected by Longreads for “Five Stories About Addiction.” Carla was selected as fall 2016 PEN In The Community Teaching Artist, and teaches at the Los Angeles Writing Project (LAWP) at California State University Los Angeles (CSULA). She is a member of the Pasadena Rose Poets. Carla has an MFA in Creative Writing (Latin America) from Queens University. Previously, she “brought home the oatmeal” as a single mom, running her PR firm, iMinds PR.
Image: “Empty Classroom” by Don Harder