M has a three day weekend coming up. I asked her if she knew why. “It’s King Arthur Jr day.” she replied.
“Martin Luther King Jr. Day?”
“Yeah, King Arthur…Arthur Lutin…yeah, him.”
“Do you know why he’s famous?”
“He said…people are good.”
“Uh…he had a dream about something…last night I dreamed there were snakes in the dryer. I need a snack.”
I had to go laugh. As a teacher, I dreaded the MLK day lessons. Why would I? After all, he was an incredible man! He did amazing things for out society and they need to learn about him. All true. However, I taught first grade. The problem with teaching these lessons to little ones is that the content can be scary. To explain why the Civil Rights Movement was necessary, you have to explain the roots, slavery and racism, which is hard for them to wrap their minds around. (Plus some child always chimes in, “Someone shot him, you know!” and then the kids cry…)
My first year, I chose the calmest, least scary books about it I could find. We talked about MLK’s life, his speeches, how he said we were all equal, and how now we could all be friends in the same classroom. I tried to make it as upbeat as possible and focus on why we honor him.
The next day, one of the parents, who was African American, met me outside the door. “My son came home and says that his teacher said white people hate black people.”
I absolutely had not. I pulled out the books, went through the lesson plan, showed her all of the materials. I must have looked panicked, because she burst out laughing. “I knew he must have misunderstood,” she said. “My god, your face. It’s okay! I knew you wouldn’t say that!”
After that, I tried to tread lightly, but it’s hard. Children are both smart and intuitive; they know what questions to ask, and it invariably becomes a discussion of institutionalized racism, which is a vital conversation, but a rocky one with little kids.
Then, we always have them write an essay about “their dream for the future,” and I have to stop at least half the kids from writing about how their dream is to have a new Playstation. It has to be inspirational, and anyway a new Playstation is my dream and you can’t have it. So I end up with twenty nine essays that basically say, “In the future my dream is that people will be nice. Also my dream is that there are no wars or sad people. Also, I want a Playstation. And no math test today. I love you XOXO.”
I wracked my brain for weeks on how to make proper lessons for this subject. I was so afraid that they’d be misinterpreted, that the parents would be angry or my students would be scared. I worked my stomach into knots. And for all of that, as a parent, my daughter comes home from her lesson and says, “King Arthur Jr. said people are good and he had a dream.”
Well, we’ve got years to get it all straightened out.