Monday, January 18, 2010

"Back When You Marched with Martin Luther King"

I'm always amazed at how much people don't know. I'm not fabulous at remembering dates myself, but I can get decades straight. I assume that people coming out of high school will know basic facts, and that might be my first mistake.

I've had more than one student say, "Back when you marched with Martin Luther King . . ."

I always interrupt to say, "I was born in 1965." Often I get a blank look. I explain, "I was born in 1965, and King was killed in 1968--that would have made me three when he died. I could hardly walk, much less march." Notice how I did the math there too; I never assume people can do basic math, since I often can't (I'm a disaster with percentage questions).

Don't get me wrong. I'm flattered that they think I'm an old Civil Rights veteran. I'm just a bit aghast that they don't understand the history. Perhaps they're really telling me how old I look, but I don't think that's the case. My students just don't know their decades.

Well, that's what teachers do, right? They teach. They make up for the gaps left by teachers who have come before. So, I give a mini-lesson about the Civil Rights movement, and on we go.

Once I played with a poem idea:

I'd like to think I'd have marched with Dr. Martin Luther King,
but he'd have made us wear our Sunday best,
and I can hardly get from the car to the church
in these high heels,
much less from Selma to Montgomery.

There's more, but I can't remember it. It's buried in a rough draft file. Perhaps I'll dig it out and spend some of this holiday revising it.

This day has always felt almost sacred to me (for more on the religious aspects of this day, go to this post on my theology blog). I've always been impressed with the Civil Rights movement, with how they stayed civilized, even when the agents of civilization (the police, the sheriff, the white establishment) seemed mad and crazed with rage. I've always been impressed with how they held fast to their beliefs, even when they flew in the face of what society might teach us. I've always been impressed with the changes that they wrought.

My younger self, that impatient nineteen year old, was impatient with how long social change took. My older self looks back at how far we've come and how quickly, and I suck in my breath and pray for continued success. A black president: my nineteen year old self would not have believed it would have happened in her lifetime. But it has.

Today is a day to dream big and bold visions. We could change our society. We could make it better. What would that society look like?

We have to dream that dream before we can achieve it. We have to find the courage to hold tightly to our visions. We have to face down all the fire hoses, both those of our minds which inform us of the impossibility of our dreams and those of our society, that tells us to move more slowly.

But first we have to dream. Dream boldly, today of all days.


Sandy Longhorn said...

Oh, Kristin, I can relate to the first half of this post. When we read "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker, many of my students state that it takes place during slavery, and they don't mean the implicit slavery that existed after the Civil War. They cannot give dates for the Civil War.

I love the resilience of "That's what teachers do, right? They teach. They make up for the gaps left by teachers who have come before." THANKS!

Kristin said...

I stopped teaching "Everyday Use" altogether once I moved out of the South--it just takes too much explaining. Many of my South Florida students have never seen a quilt--unimaginable to me, but there it is.

But that story is one of my all-time favorites--thanks for giving me a reason to remember it. It's one of the stories that made me want to write fiction. It seemed so perfect in every way, and I thought, I want to do that!