I had a TV hooked up in the library with MSNBC playing in the background while I worked on Wednesday. It was only the third day of school and I hadn't started teaching lessons yet, so I didn't have to worry about the noise disrupting classes or distracting the students with the commercials. I still missed the first part of Obama's speech, though, since he was beginning as our dismissal bell was ringing. But I was back in time to hear this line: "That tireless teacher who gets to class early and stays late and dips into her own pocket to buy supplies because she believes that every child is her charge -- she's marching." I had tears in my eyes.
I went to get Isaac out of the after school program so he could watch the broadcast of King's "I Have a Dream" speech with me. I had played a video during my children's sermon on Sunday because our scripture was about loving all God's people, but we hadn't talked about it much other than that. I told Isaac the story of how King improvised the "I Have a Dream" portion of the speech and we watched and listened for the shift in tone. And he brought me tissues when I teared up again.
I was rather disappointed that the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington fell the first week of school. So much is going on those first few days that it is hard to stop and take the time to teach about an event like that. We were focused on teaching procedures and rules and creating community in the classrooms and building relationships. All of those things are essential to a successful year, but I feel like we missed an opportunity.
Over the past decade I have read and taught with many books about the Civil Rights Movement. There are so many good ones. Some beautiful picture book biographies about Dr. and Coretta King have been written in the past couple of years. Last year Kadir Nelson illustrated the text of the "I Have a Dream" speech. The combination of the words and his paintings will bring tears to your eyes. He also illustrated Ntozake Shange's biography of Coretta Scott King. Nikki Giovann's biography of Rosa Parks, illustrated by Bryan Collier, who also illustrated Doreen Rappaport's Martin Big Words, is a lovely tribute to that Civil Rights pioneer.
Those are all wonderful biographies of people that the students learn about every year. But the books that really bring the struggle home to me, and that I like to use with students, are the fictional stories that depict the era from a child's point of view. Wednesday night I read Isaac The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson. It is the story about two girls growing up in the south in a town with a fence dividing them -- blacks on one side, whites on the other. They overcome this physical hurdle to become friends despite the scorn of their peers and the worry of their mothers. It ends with a hopeful picture of a future when the fence will no longer exist. This evening I read him Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles. This story is more raw than the sweet innocence of two girls in Woodson's story. Two best friends, one black and one white, look forward to swimming together in the newly integrated town pool in the summer of 1964, only to get there and find that it has been filled in with asphalt, the towns people preferring to do without the summer past-time rather than share it with the blacks in their community. Both of these stories had Isaac going to fetch me tissue, but for different reasons. I cried reading The Other Side because it made me hopeful. I cried reading Freedom Summer because it made me angry.
The other book that I can never read without crying when I try to teach with it, and which I have not yet read to Isaac, figuring one teary book a day is enough, is Goin' Someplace Special by Patricia McKissack. In this story, a young black girl convinces her grandmother to allow her to go to "someplace special" by herself. Reluctantly her grandmother sees her on her way. On her journey the girl is subjected to racism and scorn that her grandmother usually shields her from, but she finally reaches her destination -- the Nashville Public Library, the first integrated library in the south. Yes, I am tearing up even writing about the book.
I could list so many other books that are well-written and beautifully illustrated and that give homage to the people who have worked to make Jim Crow laws and "Whites Only" signs a thing of the past. I could also send you to the Coretta Scott King Book Award page to see the books that have been awarded honors for demonstrating "an appreciation for African American culture and universal human values." Or I could invite you to visit a school and see white and black and Asian and Hispanic children playing and learning together, because that is where King's dream is being lived out and taking root in another generation. It is not fully realized yet, but it is still growing in the hopes and dreams of the children who read these books and hear these stories. And I am thankful that I get to be one of the teachers who is marching to help nurture them.