When I refer to "my kids" here, you'll remember that I'm talking about the 300 or so I have at school. I don't have any of the "live in the same house as me" variety.
This is a story about my fifth graders. They are, in general, a delightful bunch. Kind to each other. Polite. Friendly and full of smiles. Not trying to get in each other's pants. (That was last year. I'm not kidding.) I really enjoy working with them.
Although I am a music teacher, I also tell my kids that I think it's important that I share things that are important to me. Not to make them believe the same as me, but to give them as many different perspectives on things as possible. I constantly harp on getting the information you need, and doing what you have to in order to find that information. So it's not unheard of to have a music class where we talk about the jury selection process, like we did when I got called this past fall. I needed to go into some detail about why we had to be ready to have/not have our usual morning rehearsals, and why I couldn't give them a clear answer ahead of time. So, civil education it was that day. And I didn't mind one bit.
Today, of course, is the day we celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. I wasn't sure how much kids understood about the background of this day. I mean, they can all say that MLK was a civil rights leader and he was assassinated and he was an important African American. But why did he have to do what he did? Well, that's a little less clear. And since we also study American folk music pretty intensely in my classes, we've been on a Woody Guthrie kick lately. We've talked about how Woody wrote about what he saw as he traveled the country and how his experiences influenced what he wrote. Since he did a lot of traveling during the Depression Era, there's a lot of references that the kids don't get yet, so that takes some explaining. And of course, the more you explain, the more there IS to explain, and the more there is that I CAN'T explain.
Many of Woody's songs have a theme of social justice, and let me tell you, fifth graders are all about fairness. So we expand that idea: not only is it fair for everyone to have a turn in the game, but it's fair that we all get to play in the first place. They know that you won't always win, but they also know that you can't win unless you try playing. Why is that so important outside of kickball at recess? And so the conversation goes, until we've moved into the bigger picture. It's not the experience of these kids that people were ever excluded from the game.
So last week, it was time to bring this up in terms of the civil rights movement of the 1960's, given that today is what it is. We read together an excellent book, "This is the Dream" by Diane Z. Shore. Get a copy; you won't be sorry. In short, it puts the inherent unfairness (which is what fifth graders understand) of the concept of "separate but equal" into terms that make sense. When one little guy mentions that isn't it funny...now the cool place to sit IS in the back of the bus, we can talk about how it's different if you WANT to sit there in comparison to being FORCED to sit there. When we get to the part about separate schools, and how several of our friends could not be at school with us, it hits home even more. When one little guy says, "But I'm mixed. What about that?" and I have to explain what that meant for you, it hits home. When another says, "But my skin is darker because my dad is Puerto Rican, not African American," and I have to explain that it just gave people who were looking for an excuse to exclude you one more way to exclude you, the kids are horrified for their friend. They declare they would fight for their friends, and I believe them.
They don't understand how people could have been so unfair. So unkind. So (in their words) stupid. How could people not know better? How could they make something so shallow such a big issue? Why did it have to be a big deal? I do my best to explain. I remind them that I certainly don't have all the answers. They have to live and learn it themselves. They need to understand that it wouldn't take much for it to happen all over again, because all it takes for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing. (I wish I could remember who said that. I'll look for the accurate quote and source.)
I am proud of their outrage. I am proud that none of this makes any sense to them, that they just can't understand how people could behave like they did. I am proud that they sense the inherent wrongness of it all. I am proud that they don't shrug and say, oh well, that's just how things are. I am proud that they don't want to let it happen again. My kids are compassionate, thoughtful, and determined. I am proud to know them and lucky to be their teacher. They are our future and our hope, and I think we're in good hands.