“. . . the arc of moral history is long, but it bends toward justice.” – MLK
Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is different in our school than is celebrating most other holidays in that I have to “force” it into the curriculum. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, these holidays show up at school whether I want them to or not, and the children are largely in charge of how we celebrate, but when it comes to MLK I take the reins.
Even yesterday, after two days of discussion, I had to call on a half dozen hands before Ella remembered that the next holiday was “the King Day,” not Valentine’s Day. Jack had been on the right track when he guessed, “George Lincoln’s birthday,” knowing that it had something to do with one of our great historical figures, and it was gratifying to me that he was thinking of MLK in the same category as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. We’ve talked and read about the historical facts. We’ve introduced the concept of slavery, a notion that shocks them. We talk about the marches, the speeches, and even touch on the violence and imprisonment. I skip the part about the assassination because I’ve learned from experience that once there’s a gun in the story, that’s all we’ll talk about, which misses the point of this celebration entirely.
I don’t really expect the children to remember the historical details. In fact, I know that presented to preschoolers, isolated from the context of the broad sweep of American history, it’s all landing in their brains as a collection of disturbing and inspiring images and words. My expectation is that they take their confusion home where they will spark conversations within their own families. But if there is one take-away I want to convey to the children, it is the concept of “fairness,” which is really the heart of democracy and the central point of the civil rights movement.
MLK was undeniably a great American, but more importantly is that he has come to symbolize the ongoing struggle for fairness and equality, which is the promise of our nation. It’s easy to look around, see injustice, and despair that it will always be with us, but on this day, when we honor the life of this man, it is important to celebrate how far we’ve come. In my lifetime apartheid was our law. Now we have a black President. The arc of moral history is clearly bending toward justice. This is something to celebrate and pondering how far we need to go should not dampen our pride and joy.
But perhaps even more important is to celebrate how MLK fought for justice. While others resorted to violence, his commitment to non-violence is really what carried the day. I like to talk about MLK as a bold, brave fighter who didn’t use his fists or weapons, but rather chose the way of love. This is a particularly valuable lesson for the boys, many of whom are fascinated with tough-guy superheroes and guns. I speak of love, as did MLK, as the most powerful force in the universe.
Again, I don’t really expect the children to learn all of these lessons over the course a week or two. I don’t really expect that the message of painting chains of “rainbow people” is going to give them an “ah ha” moment. I don’t really expect the children to consider the promise of our melting pot nation as they mix together the rich brown coffee grounds in our sensory table with the yellow corn meal. I don’t really think that the little MLK faces I taped to our wooden stacking robots (an idea I borrow from here) is going to change how they see the world. I don’t really expect them to fully understand the words, let alone the meaning, of MLK’s great I Have A Dream speech, which I played for them, in its entirety, yesterday.
But, in my own little way, I’m hoping that some of it will stick with them, because if I can send these children out into the world a little less prone to prejudice or violence, if I can send them out there with just a hint more tolerance or a slightly elevated sense of fairness, if they leave me with even a bit more of an understanding of the great power of love, I will have done my part in helping to bend the arc of history.
Yesterday as we listened to MLK’s recorded voice speak to us at circle time, the children sat as quietly as they ever sit, his words “rolling down like waters” on their ears. After a couple minutes I turned it off and sent them about their days. Later, when they returned from playing outside, MLK was speaking to them again. They came in chattering and goofing off as usual, but as they heard the words, they quietly took their seats on our blue rug, their eyes forward, their ears listening. By the time they were all settled in, we were spontaneously clapping along with the recorded audience, becoming in that moment a link in this chain of history. When I turned it off after a few minutes so that I could read our story, Luna popped to her feet, “I want to hear more!”
So I turned it back on. The children had re-taken control of the curriculum.