Safety Patrol, 1959


With origami precision, they could fold
their safety patrol badges and crisp white belts
into tightly wrapped cubes.

And I wanted to master that folding.
But more, I wanted what went with it.
Even the cold mornings and the wet afternoons.

At the end of my sixth school year,
I was taken aside and told I had been chosen.
I would be a safety patrol the next year.

The ending of the school year
then fell into the realm of happy paradox:
I couldnít wait to get out of school;
I couldnít wait for school to start again.

* * *

But during the summer
there was a quake in my world,
a quake that shifted the river of my world
away from where it had been going
to where it then went.

They closed my school, all public schools.
They created a big cascade in the river of my world.
And I had no choice
but to go over it.

The new course of the river in my world
flowed to the Moose Hall in my small town.
It was a wide, white building with a wide front porch,
which is where the riverís current
dropped me that fall morning,
watching my mother drive away and
waiting to be told to go inside,
to my new classroom.

There were no safety patrols that day.
And when eventually there were,
I wasnít one of them.

* * *

Later that year,
when I would walk by my old school,
I would sometimes look at the
street corners
and wonder what it would have been like.

On one such walk, I saw another kid
walking toward me.
(He was about my age, but I didnít know him.)
He was rattling a stick against the long, black
wrought-iron fence.
(click click, click click)
I had done that myself, and I even
looked around for a stick but didnít find one.

When he passed,
he swung the stick at me,
scraping my face.
Startled, I looked at him
and saw Hate in his eyes
and saw that Iíd better keep walking.
And we both did keep walking.

What had I done to him?

If you had asked me then,
I would have just shrugged and said:
I donít know.

If you had asked the inner me then,
I would have said:
It wasnít what I did or didnít do.
It was what I was.
I was white and he wasnít.

But all I had wanted was to be a
safety patrol.


Harry W. Yeatts Jr.