Friday, January 17, 2014

First Graders and Dr. King

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s picture was the first thing I saw as I walked into Lenae Madonna's first grade classroom this morning at Léman Manhattan Preparatory School.  One of those "Time for Kids" posters    that teachers get in the mail, ready to smooth out and display.  I knew the 3-day weekend was coming up, but had not truly felt the significance of the holiday since I was a second grade teacher.
When Mrs. Madonna brought out one white egg and one brown egg, I knew what was coming.
I had observed it every time I talked to children about Dr. King.
I settled on the floor among the children, and waited for the magic.

"Do you think that when I crack these open, they will look the same or different inside?" she asked.
Thinking this was leading into a cooking lesson, one boy said, "I know all about eggs. I cook stuff at home."
The tally marks totaled the students' predictions:  nine "same," five "different."
As the yolks poured out of their shells, most of the students - at least those in the voting majority - shouted, "Yay, the same!" Even a few of the hold-outs, who pointed out that one yolk looked "squishier" than the other, admitted that the insides appeared more alike than different.

Mrs. Madonna put the bowl aside and opened a biography of Martin Luther King.
"What do you know about Dr. King that makes him so special for his birthday to be a holiday?" she asked.

"He was a hero. He stopped wars between black people and white people."
"He told black people that they could sit at the front of the bus. The white people didn't like that." (A little confused with Rosa Parks, but I'm sure she wouldn't mind.)
"The blonde people would say to the black people, 'Hey, I'm not going where you're going.' He didn't like that."
"He made a famous speech called I Have a Dream."

As Mrs. Madonna read the story of MLK's childhood, when his white friend's mother refused to let her son play with a black boy, then moved onto segregated water fountains, schools, movie theaters, and restaurants, the children's growing discomfort became evident.
No longer were they sitting criss-cross applesauce, but on their knees,
their voices louder,
their comments direct, insightful. . .

"That makes no sense!"
"Why would they arrest someone just because they sat in the front of a bus?"
"It doesn't matter on the outside. It matters on the inside!"

 Mrs. Madonna picked up the bowl of egg yolks and held them up for the children to see.
"Why do you think I cracked these eggs? " she asked.

For a moment, there was silence, then the dawning of a connection.
"It's so obvious," one boy said, as he hit his forehead with the back of his hand.
Who knows that kind of vocabulary in first grade? I wondered, but apparently his classmates understood as "yeah," and "I get it," echoed around the room.

I use the word magic in this story to describe a force, a powerful force, which has the strength to bring about change. It is this innate ability of children to know when something is fair, just, good and true -- or not. They possess a gift of untainted wisdom, which recognizes injustice and demands that it be righted.

   It is their voices we need at peace tables
on hilltops and in valleys,
their voices forever chanting,
"We have a dream, too."



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