An email out of the past tests time and memories

A note from a former classmate starts a conversation about a different era and a wary reconnection with a younger self.

The email was an invitation to step back in time, from someone I hadn't seen or talked to since 1965.

Joe Migliore had noticed my byline on a column in our hometown paper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It was about the shift in racial labels — from Negro to black to African American — during our lifetime.

"It was very interesting and brought back some memories of time gone by," he wrote. "I was just wondering if you are the same Sandy Banks that I went to school with at Miles Road Elementary School" nearly 50 years ago. Joe remembered "a girl named Sandra Banks in French class taught by Mrs. Cassanova. At that time, we would have been in the 'enrichment' program at the school. Does that sound familiar?"

I remember the school, the teacher and the class. I could picture Joe in my mind's eye. But I wasn't sure about the girl he recalled.

I'd like to say she was friendly. Smart. Well-liked. But I hesitated before calling him back. I'm old enough to know that memories sometimes lie. And I wasn't sure that I wanted his recollections to be the test of mine.

::

We were in school together during an era when Cleveland was bitterly, racially divided. The year after we graduated from sixth grade, riots racked the city.

My classmates were the children and grandchildren of immigrants from the city's ethnic enclaves: Migliore, Slivka, Trankito, Kowalski, Milojevic, McFarland and Manzo. I was among a handful of black children assigned to Miles because there were no "gifted" classes on our neighborhood campuses.

I remember good teachers, good grades, good friends — and a few searing, awkward moments. Like the time Mrs. Cassanova singled me out in class as one of Cleveland's "good colored people," and meant it as a compliment.

But race back then, seen through young eyes, was not the subtext of our lives.

"We were just normal kids; same parents, same values, same work ethic." That's how Joe Migliore remembers it, and how Sandra Banks would like to.

His parents were Italian immigrants. Mine were refugees from Alabama and Georgia. He didn't speak English until he started kindergarten. And if I felt out of place because of my skin color, he "felt like a wimpy little kid, just off the boat" because of his history.

Joe and I spent almost an hour on the phone this week, sharing memories of mornings spent on safety patrol and afternoons in the school garden, where we grew exotic vegetables like kohlrabi and Swiss chard. Joe played violin in the orchestra. I made ceramic jewelry in art class.

But not every memory could be burnished by nostalgia.

He remembered a French class routine that I had forgotten. The young monsieur would introduce himself to mademoiselle, bow and kiss her hand. Every time we were partners, he confessed, he kissed his own finger instead.

I hadn't known, and felt a twinge of hurt. "I guess I bought into my family's expectations," Joe tried to explain.

His parents would have been horrified at the thought of him kissing a black girl. His mom had made it clear that his future girlfriends had better be Italian.

I understand that now in a way I couldn't have back then. We are all a product of our families, our era and our culture.

::

I lost touch with my elementary school friends after graduation. The junior high we were supposed to attend was virtually all black. The first day of seventh grade was enough to scare off most white kids.

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