"So, today is birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.," teacher Yang Li said to her circle of first-graders. "Who can tell me something about Dr. King?"
"I see teevee," said Mukhtar, a thoughtful boy from Somalia.
Today's blog is by Cindy Lutenbacher, mom of an ICS 2007 graduate. Last year, in January, she started volunteering weekly in the first-grade class where Bill's brother Igey started at ICS. She kept a diary, and we'll be posting excerpts here occasionally. The following is from January 15, 2008.
"Good!" said Yang, "and what did you learn?"
Mukhtar began to search the room with his gaze. "I remember only a few sing, but I remember ozzar sing."
"Good start. Can you tell us something?"
"OK, then. It's Dr. King's birthday, but it is much more than birthday cake, yes?" Yang said, pausing to make eye contact with each kid. "Children, I have to tell you something. Dr. King is one of my heroes. When I was growing up on the island of Mauritius, we thought the United States was great. When we heard of the terrible things that were being done to African-American people here, we thought, What? What can this be?' So I learned about Dr. King and the way he was trying to get things to change. Peacefully. He is my hero."
"He's everybody's hero," said Dasia, an African-American girl with spunk for miles.
"That's right. Everybody's hero," Yang encouraged. "First, does everyone know what a hero is?"
The kids looked at one another before Kelly, a US-born redhead, offered up, "Someone who saves lives? Who helps other people?"
"Yes, Kelly. Dr. King was helping all people because he was trying to teach us to live together peacefully."
Sharbal, a tall Iraqi boy, piped up: "Because all the grown-ups fight, and that's why he was a nice man."
"Good, Sharbal. Tell me, Sharbal, is fighting a good thing?"
"No, no, he say not to fight."
"What is fighting, children? Is it like war?"
Yang does what many teachers are afraid to do: She talks about things that may be very painful, but things that the children have experienced. Many, if not most, of the kids in her class have seen war.
"Children, what is the opposite of war?"
"Peace!" they shouted.
"Yes, and Dr. King said that peace is what we want. What we need," Yang explained.
Yang gave me a book about MLK to read and discuss with the children. We talked about the bad idea of racism, the concept that people with lighter colored skin were somehow "better" than people with darker colored skin. I used my own skin to exemplify the lighter colored, and most of the children's as darker. I talked about remembering separate water fountains and bathrooms in my home of Louisiana, about restaurants and schools and school books. I kept asking them, "Is that right? Is that OK?"
Always, they could easily see that the "bad idea" of racism was wrong.
When I finished, Yang took over the discussion: "And it's more than just a bad idea. It's something that is very real. The government made very bad laws to try to keep people apart, and to keep brown-skinned people down. Do you know that if we were living when Dr. King was alive, I would not have been able to be your teacher? You could not all be in the same classroom? Ms. Amedi could not be your teacher? Those were some of the bad laws that I'm talking about. It's not just some bad idea floating about the sky; it's real laws that were made. What's a law?"
On we persevered for a few more minutes about bad laws and good laws and the impact of Dr. King. Yang could see the kids were getting restless, so she got them on their feet to walk as if they were part of Dr. King's march. We sang "We Shall Overcome" as we walked.
"We learned that last year with Ms. Htwe Htwe!" several kids exclaimed.
"Good! Yes! You know Ms. Htwe Htwe is my friend," said Yang "I lived six months in her apartment with her family. Who is from the same country as Ms. Htwe Htwe?"
Joseph raised his hand, and Yang said, "Good. And Behtoo, Thayoomoo, raise your hands. Sanda.... Yes, that's right. In Burma, the government wants to control the people, so they have made bad laws that hurt the people. Another of my heroes is Aung San Suu Kyi because she has worked for many, many years to change the government and their bad laws. She has been in prison in her house for many, many years. She cannot go outside to feel the sun or walk in the grass."
The children were enraptured. Burma was the home of about a fifth of the class. "There's another place in the world, and it is called Darfur...." she said, and they were off again.
After recess that afternoon, we gathered again on the circle rug.
"Children, you see that poster over there?" Yang said, pointing to an iconic image of Dr. King. "Dr. King made a very famous speech called I Have a Dream,' and his dream was that all children would have what they need and that all people would be treated equally and live together in peace. I have a dream, too, and it is that all people would have the health care that they need. Everyone needs to be able to get the medicines and the help that they need when they are sick, yes? What are your dreams? What do you wish for all people?"
So they proffered, while I scribed their responses on a dry-erase board:
I have a dream...
There is a job for everyone
Everyone has freedom
Everyone's needs are taken care of
No more wars
No passport is needed to visit another country
Everyone makes peace
Everyone in different countries will be friends
Skin color does not matter
Everyone is healthy
Everyone has a home
No hunger - everyone has enough food to eat and money to use
Every child has love
Then the kids got to work making pictures to go with their dreams. I left to go pick up my daughter, and to spend a few minutes with the dreams of children.