Tag Archives: Martin Luther King Day

Taking the First Step

An address to the school delivered on Martin Luther King Day.

“When you call something the ‘New Civil Rights Movement,’ you’re implying that the ‘old’ Civil Rights Movement is over. It isn’t.”Womanist Gamer Girl

Nearly 60 years ago, on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States issued their historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education ending legal segregation in American schools. Chief Justice Earl Warren had worked for weeks to build a consensus, enabling the decision to be unanimous despite personal and legal reservations several of the justices held in the case. One of the key holdings was that, “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. . .” (http://www.uscourts.gov/)

Nearly 60 years later, exactly a week ago today, U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall settled the longest-running case relative to Brown, approving a settlement between the Little Rock district and the state and surrounding districts. The original case dates back to 1956, when a class action suit was filed seeking the desegregation of the Little Rock school system. While in one sense the settlement ends an era that should never have stretched out so long, there is little to celebrate about it.

For one thing, according to history professor John Kirk, “in a city that is roughly 47 percent white and 42 percent black, the school population is two-thirds African-American.” (Kirk, quoted by Washington) As Kirk further noted, white students are choosing private or charter schools. In addition, and following patterns that were seen in districts throughout the country as schools were progressively desegregated, there was a significant amount of white flight to the suburbs. In this way, as was noted by attorney John Walker, who represented black students in the case, “the legal system of segregation has been replaced by a defacto system.” Pulaski County Superintendent Jerry Guess said, “I have had a lot of people comment about their kids going to schools where black students are and not wanting to. And I believe that’s still, unfortunately, a truth about human nature.” (Guess, quoted in Elliott)

“A truth about human nature.” Seriously? I’m not going to deny that there are prejudiced people in the world, and of course we all notice difference. But specific attitudes toward difference are not inevitable. People are not born prejudiced; this must be learned.

And if it can be learned, then it can also be unlearned. Unlearning is a long, slow process. Research suggests that it takes nine times as long to relearn something correctly as it does to learn it correctly in the first place. But when the goal is universal respect for all people regardless of the colour of their skin, we have a moral obligation to work for that goal, to keep the faith no matter the odds. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” and “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

So, if you do encounter prejudice, take that step and confront it. Start the unlearning process. Confront prejudice with love and respect, for you will never teach love and respect if you don’t model it. But confront it nonetheless. Have faith that you are doing the right thing. Have faith the next steps will become clear when the time is right.

And have faith that you are not alone. Year after year, time and time again, my students express sadness and confusion that racism ever existed and still exists, and time and time again, they say they want to do something about it. So, when I get discouraged in my own fight, I often think of you all. Because you inspire me to stay on the staircase, even when the next step isn’t visible. Yet.

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Filed under Current Events, Uncategorized

The Necessity of Maladjustment

My shoulder grew progressively numb as my friend, convinced that everyone who claimed to be a pacifist had a breaking point, kept hitting it over and over. His face began to contort, and through gritted teeth he hissed, “I’m going to make you hit me.” But I didn’t hit back, and eventually he walked away in disgust. I’ve always wondered what he took away from the incident. Me, I took pride in having successfully maintained my principles of non-violence, though as it turned out I couldn’t have moved my arm if I had wanted, and it hung uselessly at my side for at least five minutes as I walked to my next class and took my seat.

Several years beforehand, when I was in eighth grade, I first read Daybreak by Joan Baez. In a series of poems, dreams, vignettes, and essays, she explored her own pacifism and the principles by which she unflinchingly led her own life. It was one of the most influential books of my childhood.

As I grew in adulthood, though, I couldn’t help but think that it wasn’t always as simple as Ms. Baez made it out to be. One evening, not long after I began teaching here, we invited Andrea LaSonde Anastos, then co-minister of First Church in Deerfield with her husband George, to talk about her life and work. Among other subjects, she touched on her own pacifism, inspiring a question from one of the students as to whether she could ever conceive of a situation where she might choose to use violence. She said before she had children, she would have said absolutely not, but that she now realized that if someone went after her kids and she had the chance, she wasn’t sure but what she would take them out without hesitation. Oddly, I was comforted by her admission. I believed (and still do) there was a big difference between personally suffering for one’s principles and watching others suffer, perhaps even die, for the same reason, and I myself wasn’t sure what I would do in the same situation. She made it safe for me to feel that ambivalence.

One month ago today, a gunman broke into Sandy Hook Elementary School, and you know the rest. This country has a history of mass killings, and so often the initial shock and outcry subsides after a few days or maybe weeks and nothing ever changes. But there is some evidence that things may be different this time. Here at Stoneleigh-Burnham, our Student Council has written all students “[inviting] you all to wear GREEN and WHITE to commemorate the one-month anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, CT.” (Claire L.) No doubt, we will be just one of countless schools doing so.

And this doesn’t even take into account the many individual actions private citizens may be taking, such as writing their Representative or Senators, or engaging people in conversations both face to face and through social media. In a country far too often divided along partisan lines, I feel like I’ve seen more sincere effort to reach across those lines and find common ground than with any other issue in months if not years.

As many people are saying, this is going to be a marathon and not a sprint. Meanwhile, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, an average of eight children die each day due to gunfire. That’s 56 kids each week, and nearly 250 since Sandy Hook. This lends a certain sense of urgency to the marathon.

Martin Luther King, Jr. has written, “There are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon you to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to mob rule. I never intend to adjust myself to the tragic effects of the methods of physical violence and to tragic militarism. I call upon you to be maladjusted to such things.” (King)

I hold out hope that our country has finally become permanently maladjusted to events like Sandy Hook. I hold out that hope not only because I see Dr. King’s ideals in my students but also because I know so many people across the political spectrum who have been deeply moved by Sandy Hook and who sincerely want to leave a better world to our children. It will not happen on its own and it will not be easy. But the alternative is simply unthinkable.

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Filed under On Education, On Parenting, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School

The Fierce Urgency of… Whenever?

As I do every Monday, I walked into my Humanities 7 class and asked, “Who wants to read their independent writing today?” Several people did, but a greater number said they weren’t sure and asked for me to write their name on the white board in parentheses, our special code for “I’ll decide at the last minute.” The last few weeks, there had been increasing numbers of parentheses, a trend I had decided needed to stop in its tracks.

So while the students who were reading were starting up their laptops and pulling up the documents, I decided to whip open my iPad and search online for Taylor Mali’s poem, “Totally like whatever, you know?” The poem begins, “In case you hadn’t noticed / it has somehow become uncool / to sound like you know what you’re talking about?” and ends with these lines: “Because contrary to the bumper sticker, / it is not enough these days to simply QUESTION AUTHORITY. / You have to speak with it, too.” We had a great discussion about the poem, and they totally like, you know… got it that I am working to teach them to “speak with conviction.” Our discussion ended with the following dialogue:

Me: I’m also teaching you to question authority.

Them: How?

Me: Well, are you comfortable questioning me?

Them: (genuine laughter)

Them: Why?

Me: Because sometimes authority needs to be questioned.

Them: (thoughtful silence)

Coincidence or not, two seventh graders came to me that day to talk over some concerns they had about middle school representation on Student Council given our ever-increasing numbers. They offered several suggestions as to what changes might be made to the system next year, and while they were genuinely open-minded and listened to my thoughts in a true spirit of dialogue, they did not simply bend to my way of thinking. They did indeed speak with conviction in a spirit true to their own best selves.

Meanwhile, the Upper School Rock Band has been working on “Know Your Enemy” by Green Day, and frankly, I need never have worried about how they would sound screaming “Gimme gimme revolution!” toward the end. Indeed, from the very first snare hit that begins the piece to the final powerful “Yeah!!!” held over the sustained distortion of two screaming guitars, the heart-rattling thunk of the bass, and the combined crash-bang of drums and piano, they are thoroughly convincing that “silence is the enemy / against your urgency / So rally up the demons of your soul!”

Martin Luther King spoke about “the fierce urgency of now,” and of course two groups that sense that urgency most strongly are oppressed people and adolescents. I would add that people who work with and care about both groups often share that feeling. Indeed, I find myself feeling it ever more strongly these days (as regular readers of this blog may have guessed!).

John Steinbeck captured it well in Travels With Charley, written in 1960 (three years before Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech) and published in 1962, which describes a conversation with a young, Black student who lived near New Orleans during a time of horrific protests against school integration. “Finally,” writes Steinbeck, “we spoke of Martin Luther King and his teaching of passive but unrelenting resistance. ‘ It’s too slow,’ he said. “It will take too long’” Steinbeck responded, “’There’s improvement, there’s constant improvement. Gandhi proved it’s the only weapon that can win against violence.’ ‘I know all that. I’ve studied it. The gains are drops of water and time is passing. I want it faster, I want action – action now.’” Later, Steinbeck describes the final scene of their conversation as the young student said, “’I’m ashamed. It’s just selfishness. But I want to see it – me – not dead. Here! Me! I want to see it – soon.’ And then he swung around and wiped his eyes with his hand and he walked quickly away.”

Unsurprisingly, I have had more conversations than I can count with students here who want to make this world a better place. Six-year seniors might be surprised – or not! – how many of our conversations I still remember. And it only adds to my own feeling that for all the drops of water I am working to contribute to bettering our world, It. Is. Not. Enough. Many of our students will be voting in the next presidential election, and all of them in the one after that. It is my hope, conviction, and comfort that, as their generation grows up, they’ll continue to hold true to their vision of how the world ought to be and work to make that vision come true. Not in some vague “whenever” time. In the now.

That is my own dream today.

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Filed under In the Classroom, On Education, School Happenings, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective