A memoir of an American childhood and adolescence set in the turbulent 1960s and 70s, down they forgot traces the story of a girl finding her way in a family overshadowed by mental illness. Social and political discontent—assassinations, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, drugs and dropping out—inform this haunting story about personal identity and the consequences of loneliness, despite the passionate and fleeting friendships of youth.
Letteri casts a wide net over her youth and wrests from that ocean of memory such gleaming treasures. The whole of youth is captured to perfection in these essays, the intimate and the political, the terrible and the joyous. In the end down they forgot does what the best memoirs must; it reveals Letteri’s lost world while beckoning readers to recall their own.Lewis Buzbee, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop
down they forgot will be forthcoming from Lilith House Press in March, 2021.
Excerpt from down they forgot
I sit idly on the swings as the buses pull away and the playground empties of kids. I am not alone for long when three older boys emerge from the footpath that runs between the gymnasium and the playing fields. I see them in my peripheral vision, but as they enter the playground, they swing around and come up behind me. I hear loud whispers as they approach and feel the first hot sting as a piece of bark chip hits me square in the back. I sit tight and will my mother to pull up at the curb—right now. They pelt me a few times, drawing closer, calling me names that sound sharp and nasty:cracker, cunt, bitch. The bark chips sting, but they don’t really hurt. I’m trying not to cry. Then a stone grazes my shoulder. I turn around in the swing, still holding fast to the chains; they are very close, just a few feet away. Big teenaged boys. One of them is smiling, but his eyes are narrow and cold. He is holding a stone the size of a golf ball, tossing and catching it. Suddenly, he whips it low and hard and it hits just below my left knee.
“What did you do that for?” I can’t hold back the tears any longer. They come tumbling out with my words. I am angry and incredulous—and too afraid to turn away.
“You don’t belong here, white girl,” says the smiling boy. “You better get on home.” He reaches down for another stone. Just at that moment, I hear a woman’s voice behind me, and I swivel back around in the swing. Across the road, a Black woman wearing a cotton housedress is gesturing to me from her front porch. She has one hand on her hip. “Come on over here, honey,” she calls to me as if she were my own kin. “Come on,” she calls again, and I obey. I look over my shoulder as I cross the street and see the boys looking down at their feet, walking backwards, hands jammed in their pockets, turning and vanishing behind the school.
In the fall of 1967, my parents volunteered me for an experimental education initiative, The Open Classroom. I was bussed into a Black neighborhood, and together with a few hundred other white kids from middle-class families, we integrated a run-down school in a tough part of town. I was nine.
In hindsight, calling it integration was a bit far-fetched. Most of the local kids were bussed out to traditional schools, while the old neighborhood school was transformed with bright paint and modern furniture and renamed the Lab School. Students in the Lab School were predominantly white, as were our teachers. Only the janitors, the lunch ladies and a handful of promising students were Black.
The experiments didn’t stop with location or the fluidity of our classroom walls. We were placed in mixed age groupings and moved from class to class throughout the day as if we were already in high school. Our teachers, like college professors, were expert in their fields.
Lab School students participated in a variety of experiments on the effects of race, class, and teaching methodology on student attitudes and performance. During one week-long experiment, all the blue-eyed children were treated as the minority: we were not called on or chosen for special tasks, we were made to sit in back of the room and passed over for athletics. Only brown-eyed children were singled out for special treatment. A note had gone home to our parents explaining this “original teaching unit on discrimination.”
On the Monday morning, I received a small blue card with a safety pin affixed to the back. I was told to take care of it, to wear it on my shirt all week and not lose it. That afternoon, I raised my hand in response to a question put to the class. My beloved English teacher passed right over me as if I were invisible, even though there were no other children volunteering answers. Later that same day I sat through the entire gym period, waiting to be called onto the tumbling mats. I never was.
On Tuesday, I forgot to wear the blue card. I was furnished with a replacement and a sharp reproach. By Wednesday, I was a blue-eyed heap of doubt and tears. I stayed home on Thursday with a stomachache. My mother kindly explained the experiment to me, but it didn’t help. On Friday, the cards were collected, and the aim of the experiment revealed. I tried to admire the point they’d made, but I was ashamed of my ignorance and embarrassed at my vulnerability.
My first friend at Lab School was Millie Johnson. Millie was in my homeroom and during the first week we helped each other navigate the strange new terrain of classrooms without walls, independent study periods and unfamiliar faces. I was delighted to find that Millie was also in my math class. We shared, among other things, a dislike for the subject. Millie was gifted, quick, and bored. I struggled with the increasingly abstract problems, relying on Millie to check my homework and decode the intricacies of fractions and formulae.
Millie wore her hair in tight braids, smelled of talcum, and had a deep, infectious, open-mouthed laugh. We sat together in the Field House cafeteria at lunchtime. Millie knew the words to all the Motown hits on the jukebox. I fed in quarters and she punched up the songs. On rainy days, she taught me dance steps and all the hand gestures:
Stop! In the name of love
Before you break my heart . . .
When it was sunny, we raced around the packed dirt lot next to the swings, daring the boys we liked to catch us. They never did.
One day, Millie invited me to her house after school. I stumbled on the steps as we boarded her bus. When I lifted my eyes and looked down the aisle, I was surprised to see nothing but Black faces. Some of the kids were laughing and pointing at me, and one boy called out, “Millie! Girl, what you doin’ with that white cracker on this bus?” Millie laughed, just the way she always did, but the bus driver didn’t like it one bit. He stood up and told Millie and me to sit in the front seat right behind him. Then he walked slowly down the aisle to the back of the bus, glaring at the kids until they got very quiet. “Everyone’s welcome on my bus,” he growled. Then he returned to his seat, swung the door shut and started the engine.
Near the end of the term, I invited Millie to my house. It was warm and sunny, and we decided to throw a Frisbee around in the front yard. The neighbor kids, who were younger than me and usually kept to themselves, were kicking a ball around their yard. Their mother watched them from the window. When Millie and I started to play, Mrs. Hinners came out onto her front steps and called sharply to her children. Just then, their ball rolled into our yard, across the sidewalk and toward the street. Millie ran and stopped it with her foot. As she bent to pick it up, Mrs. Hinners shouted, “Don’t you touch that ball!” Millie stood up slowly and backed away from the ball. One of the Hinners children darted onto our lawn and grabbed it and they all ran into the dark mouth of their doorway.
One night in January 1968, I’m lying on the floor reading the comics, when I catch a fragment of David Brinkley reporting from Washington: “The ten thousandth US airplane has been brought down over Vietnam.” By February, I’m watching avidly along with my family, as the North Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive, and the State Department announces the highest casualty toll yet. In a single week, 543 Americans are killed in action and 2,547 are wounded. President Johnson announces he won’t run for re-election.
Politics spark lots of discussion at our dinner table. Richard Nixon has declared his candidacy, and in March Bobby Kennedy finally decides to enter the race. Bobby, it seems, is the perfect choice. My parents say he’ll be able to bring together Black Americans and labor, the blue-collar whites. My brother, already a political junkie, finds an old “tricky Dick” button from the 1964 Kennedy–Nixon campaign: a picture of Nixon with the words, “Would You Buy a Used Car from This Man?” But Dickie has a favorite new button, and he wears it every day: “If I Were 21, I’d Vote for Bobby.”
In April, the violence hits home: Martin Luther King is shot dead in Memphis. Dickie is standing in line at Osco Drugs, waiting to pay for a couple of records, when the announcement comes over the radio. Some guy standing in line in front of him, a white man, says, “Bout time somebody got that n—.” Dickie runs home red-faced and furious, angry with himself for not saying anything, for not standing up to that man. “The thing is,” he says, his eyes blurring with tears, “most people who work there are Black. Some of them must’ve heard.”
The night it happens, Bobby Kennedy appears on the news. He’s on the campaign trail, speaking to a packed house, mostly Black people, at a union rally in Indianapolis. In the clip we can hear the agonized cries of the crowd as Bobby breaks the devastating news.
The full text of Bobby’s speech is reprinted in the morning paper; my mother reads it to us at the breakfast table. Her voice breaks at the point where Bobby had quoted, right off the top of his head, from the Greek poet Aeschylus: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forgive falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”