Martin Luther King Day: Tap the right kind of dissatisfaction

Martin Luther King Day reminds a school principal of the right kind of dissatisfaction: To recognize what's wrong and to feel that something better is possible – and you can help fix it.

Associated Press
On Martin Luther King Day, a school principal ponders the civil rights leaders simple message: How to object to injustice.

I celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. today. Perhaps it’s because my father spent part of his newspaper career traveling through Alabama to Selma, Birmingham and Montgomery covering the famous civil rights demonstrations led by Dr. King. Perhaps because King would be the same age as my father. But I think it’s mostly because King taught me how to be positively dissatisfied, something I hope I’ve conveyed to my children and students. 

His was a simple message: how to object to injustice. “This isn’t right; something better is possible.” But there’s a crucial coda: “I can help to fix it.” Many have identified injustice; few have given the tools for change to the powerless. King, the legendary American, the Nobel laureate, the preacher, the courageous man, connects me to the essence of my work in education.

Working in schools, I know that children have an innate ability to flag injustices and feel that “something better is possible.” In schools, we witness these individual consciences making a difference every day, often in the face of the bland or arrogant voice of tradition saying “that’s just the way it is,” pleading for the status quo. But in their wonderful small ways, children refute limitations. In their small ways, they live those words that King seems to own: They have a dream. 

Enacting dreams can become fraught. Teachers too are nagged by the voice saying “that’s just the way it is;” that teaching even the smaller kindnesses isn’t worth it. The voices of gossip, teasing, exclusivity or indifference plead constantly in our daily walk with classmates and colleagues around the schoolyard. Why does it grow harder to say “That’s not fair” to the little stuff, much less the sublime threats to civility? Teachers must clarify values and opportunities for leadership every chance we get, be it the barbed note passed in class, graffiti in the bathroom, the inward knife of cheating, or the put-downs given such celebrity in our culture of irony.

This may be the most important curriculum we teach. It is the part of teaching that deals with the essence of humanity, the essence of being a citizen, a friend. This is King’s curriculum, writ small: finding in the empathic connection to others the key to our own humanity and happiness.

We should sweat the “small stuff,” before it gets big. Working on the small stuff translates into progress on the sublime. Americans are faced with some robust epidemics: hatred, violence or “mere” indifference. If our schools are educating young adults who can learn to be positively dissatisfied – “This isn’t right; I can fix this” – there is hope for a cure.

It’s not that we don’t know the antidote. As the heroes of the civil rights movement have shown us, in America, Tiananmen Square, Prague, or Belfast, revolutions that overturn cruelty and oppression often begin with one person, a single voice saying: “That’s not right.” Perhaps it is by simply voting; perhaps facing down a tank; perhaps tackling the assassin. But the roots of such a stance lie in Dr. King’s thoughts. “It really boils down to this,” he said, “that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Maya Angelou relied upon King’s most famous image when she instructed us to:    

Lift up your eyes upon

This day breaking for you.

Give birth again

To the dream.

Every year at this time, every day, we should celebrate this spirit – the right kind of dissatisfaction – King’s dream.

Todd R. Nelson is head of school at The School in Rose Valley, Penn.  His father, Robert C. Nelson covered the Civil Rights movement for The Christian Science Monitor. The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs.

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