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    Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

    January 11, 2007

    Today I startled, realizing we are just moments away from Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

    I feel less prepared this year, and more personally inadequate working towards something I know really matters. This day symbolizes something so very important to public school, the right all children have to a fair public experience. No one contributed more directly to the notion (that children are deserve and we are called upon to allow each child to find a fair, happy, good start in learning in a school designed to honor them as one of all of us, a nation of the free) than Martin Luther King, Jr.

    My day as a first grade teacher is so scripted now, and controlled in an Under-performing school a year from "take over" pieces I used to do to prepare are ram-rodded into tiny corners of our day's time and left now not well contextualized in rich literature and meaning as they need to be to become a part of the understanding and meaning life of the child (this isn't the stuff in the scripts for poor children) or it's rushed in on our lunch breaks. And so I went looking for a book I call a friend to start talking about the experience of being black in America, something some of my students know first hand, and all of us need to honor second hand, by remembering someone I think of as a true patriot. One who lived in my times and whom I honor in my work every day.

    I have used this book, My Dream of Martin Luther King (Dragonfly Books) by Faith Ringgold, from my book box that my daughter labeled "The Wonderful African American Experience" for a long time and in various settings. I've read it in South Oxnard, CA at Hathaway School where children are mostly Mexican American first or second generation Americans now, and in the smallest of school districts in the San Diego mountains that services two reservation schools where the children and more established teachers seemed oddly (a couple years ago) worried about my month of Black American Awareness teaching but where the children were absolutely intensely involved in the work. I think I acquired it when I worked with migrant farm worker children in the Salinas Valley.

    Teaching children in first grade through a piece like this is a very interesting construction. For one thing, I talk to children imbedded within a poverty setting and they are talking about things they find rather amazing. Skin color, past histories...it becomes a platform to discuss the way it is, the way it was, in different places, times, with a wide variety of realities to honor and reveal. I so recall my own daughter who went to Hathaway school at five years of age never really knowing about skin colors as they are seen in a greater world of comparisons based on skins…and having been called "olive" for her Italian complexion, always colored her self-portraits so very dark, returned home from Kindergarten to tell me about a book she read on King in the library. She stated, "Mom he was shot for what he did, people were hosed and dogs set on them and some had separate schools. Mom, what kind of place is this?" And I had to tell her I recalled these things; it was America's story, and she just stared at me.

    Today a class of 6-year-olds just stared the exact same way. Try it, get this book, go read to a first grade and see what they tell you. How we go from this kind of truth to the insanity of this world is something I can never fully understand.

    Then in her childhood, I had to tell my daughter about driving through city areas after riots when I was five. It was a very interesting thing to hear my daughter 12 years ago say to me, "People are just crazy." Yes, they are.

    And as you teach, work on and refine how to talk to these issues and to honor, to learn and to attempt to reach for the truth, you see your limits and you see the palpable ignorance that is what we do. It's a very important job; I do not take it lightly nor see it enough as a part of the dialogs going on in so much of the "schools of the future," work blasting on about the global economy. And that's a crime against all children, an invalidation.

    This holiday stands to talk to us about much that needs to be done. Education stands with transformative power. It stands as a public responsibility and a way to shape the future. Not make everyone a millionaire and thus be immunized. It is a way to share our history so we are not condemned to repeat it. This book helps in that quest.

    In South Central when I taught in Watts, over twenty years ago, my children asked me if I was white. . . children living so isolated in a gang and violence based poverty wondering if I was really white. I just always remember how sorry they were for me.

    But I'm not sorry for me.

    In my lifetime I have had the opportunity to see so much. I was able, using this book and so many others in literature-based instruction today, to revisit some of my truths. And in doing that to honor memories and people, to stand once again upon the shoulders of those who made a difference both known and the thousands unknown to the greater world except inside the leaders and good people who make America what she is at her best.

    I was a white student who had a black third grade teacher who spent all but five years of her long career teaching in the "black school" in my hometown. One I grew up to learn existed. A better teacher than Gladys Peyton never existed. She taught any child as if they were expected to live an honorable life. Her words to me to honor her role in my life by "doing for others, the children, thinking of me." And from this I learned. Golden rules are lived constructs not platitudes on plaques. I lived and heard King. I saw these times chronicled by Ringgold. I recall the speeches. I know what it felt and sounded like to live in the 60's. I recall the struggle for human rights and know what the content of character was/is about. I know what it is to teach in places that are more dangerous than you know, for the kids that live there every day as their reality--and they live in this in this land of the free. I have been able to see the disparity in America. I know all children need to be filled with "the dream." And I know all children are gifted and all essential to our survival. I know talking to my class of children today about the issues raised in this story of prejudice, hate, separate but equal...with their questions and amazement. I know there is still an unspoken separate and call it equal. I see it done through NCLB, real estate, and corporate control in our country.

    Today in a teacher meeting I heard a few peers state things about kid's potentials as limited by their poverty and ignorant parents not seeing themselves as dream givers but dream enders. I consider myself a person so lucky to teach in so many realities, in Appalachia too. For I know that my life has shown me so much so many lack living a life about getting, holding and securing for self. I know what it is to dedicate myself to the hope for a better day. Because I am a witness, and a teacher. I have worked in poverty and seen what lack of healthcare looks like, what ignorance brings, what it is to lose hope. I know. And that is something with great meaning. And these things come to classroom in the form of leadership. And that is what a teacher does. They decide to lead. Knowledge is power and children need to learn about slavery, history, unfairness, prejudice and hate. It matters so much.

    I know that there are ways to make a street in Watts where 93rd Street school sits, seem as if it sat so far from your reality you never worry for 5 seconds about the children without crayons, safety, food. I taught a little girl there, Phyllis, never even sure she had more than a pair of flip-flops and a coat. I saw no sign of a home. She negotiated a place to stay daily with other kids. She was 8. I've seen what social service looks like for kids in CA. I've seen what it is like when a child in my room doesn't have enough to eat and after writing a compassionate story about her my brother-in-law suggests it's her problem if her family is too stupid to go to a charity. I know that we are a long, long way from the days we can say that this is a fair world.

    But I do think a book like Ringgold's helps. It's important to have a way to begin to share our thoughts. It's so interesting how she talks of having a dream herself and this is the thread running through her book a waking dream of memories of the life of King. Children in first grade struggle with the Dream notion. . . what does this mean. . . a dream quest, a vision. She talks of a dream where she sees all the peoples of the world holding bags of their hate, anger, prejudices going up stairs to trade the bags for love and peace. In this she briefly sees shifting through the dream the events often told of King. The rejection of the neighbor child, the learning big words, the teacher of King's made to stand on the bus, the marches and jailing. I find at my level a need to stop as I read and contextualize a little bit. But I do have very young children. It's fair to say that I wonder if children up the road in wealthier, affluent areas are reading this book too with their classes to prepare for our upcoming holiday. I wonder.

    Ringgold always produces books to hear. And no different today. My students did very much enjoy going along in her first person narrative. I would like to complete this with the children writing Dream poems. Because I, too, have a dream this Thursday in 2007. Tomorrow I will share the poems. I dream of a time when children will go to a free public school where they will have access to technology, literature, math, science the arts and learn about who they are and what dreams we can build together as a society that respects our core strengths and efforts, the content of our character, supported by teachers who are honored, trusted and to whom our country looks to help guide together these precious trusts into lives that are happy, free and meaningful. And I want to dedicate myself again to this vision that King help bring to me.

    2007-01-12 05:10:28


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