Gotham teacher Ana Maria Spagna has just seen the publication of her memoir Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus: A Daughter’s Civil Rights Journey. In 1957, the author’s father engaged in a daring civil rights protest in Florida (riding a bus sitting with black people so as to get arrested and take the case to the Supreme Court). The father never spoke of the experience and he died when the author was only eleven. So, fifty years after the event, the author set out to find what really happened and who her father really was. Noted memoirist Danielle Trussoni says, “Any daughter who has puzzled over the mystery of her heritage will love Spagna from the get-go.”
Here’s a passage. See if you love her, too:
On January 19, after my dad went out running, breaded chicken sat in the pan he used to make jelly omelets. I sat on the couch watching Bewitched. The chicken had been sitting there for a long time, through The Monkees and Gilligan’s Island and I Dream of Jeannie, and though on most days we had to turn off the TV long before I Dream of Jeannie, nobody told me to turn it off that night, so I kept watching. I listened hard, and I kept my mouth shut tight, while my mother talked on the rotary wall telephone behind the couch to the police, and then to the hospital, while she went through the details: black hair, moustache, scar down his chest. She was not crying until they got to the medal. After she described the medal—Always Go Forward—she dropped the phone, and the receiver dangled by the wall, cord twisting, mom sobbing, for a long time.
He wasn’t dead, Mom told us. He was in a coma.
I continued to go to school while he was in the hospital. The annual spelling bee was a week away, and since I was the defending champ, with only this year left of eligibility, the pressure was on. The night before the bee, as I ran through my word list alone in my bedroom, I overheard my grandmother and my mother talking in low tones.
“It’s the right thing to do.”
“You have to do it.”
I knew somehow what that meant. I’d heard the phrase before—“pull the plug”—probably on TV, and that night it lodged in my mind, though I don’t think they actually said it. It played over and over like a skipping record—pulltheplug, pulltheplug, pulltheplug—as I lay awake through the night, the alphabet raining down on me, letters jumbling together in nonsense configurations. I struggled to make sense of them, to spell them into proper order in my mind.
You know that word, I told myself. You can do it. Don’t panic.
I knew, in a way, what was to come.
The next day the auditorium at school was dark. By the end of the spelling bee, only three of us remained among thirty cold metal chairs. The microphone squawked, its long cord coiling back and around, then disappearing off the stage, and when the principal called out “adequate,” it was as if I’d never heard the word before. I could not imagine where it came from or what it meant, and I didn’t bother to ask.
I spelled it: “A-T-T-I-Q-U-I-T.”
The principal said: “Sorry.”
Reprinted by permission of University of Nebraska Press. For more information on Ana Maria and her book, visit: anamariaspagna.com