My political worldview was permanently imprinted by the events of 1968. On TV, I watched soldiers and children dying in Viet Nam; Martin Luther King assassinated; riots; Bobby Kennedy assassinated; more riots; Hubert Humphrey accidentally gassed at his own convention; more riots; Nixon elected. I was 8 years old.
Every year on Martin Luther King Day, I make a pilgrimage back in my mind to that year and reflect on what has transpired since. I did not write that day, nor listen to anyone's speeches. Some years I listen to or read something that Dr. King said; but not this one. This year I found myself reading about his children going to court in a legal battle over who is the rightful owner of his Bible. That is sad, but I do not judge them. Their father was taken from them in life and in death. I can understand them fighting over the Book that inspired his life's work, and helped get him killed. If only
Bibles were that dangerous.
The Thursday before MLK Day, I was working with our mentoring program in Chester- one of the poorest and most violent cities in Pennsylvania. Before I arrived, Maurice* without prior cause, took his juice box and smashed it on the floor with his foot sending its full contents spraying over the floor and onto his fellow classmates. For his actions, he had been sentenced to the couch to do his homework. I sat beside him and asked if he needed help, to which he said, "I can't do it and my momma says I do not have to do it if I don't understand." He then proceeded to stab his worksheets with his pencil. I could see that Maurice had not done any homework all week. I grabbed the pencil. "Not what a pencil is for," and I handed it back to him.
Maurice would a) drum the paper with his pencil (no harm there); b) say he couldn't do it c) try to quit; d) then we would figure something out; e) he would be happy for a second; f) then we would start all over at a). We finished two pages, both of us exhausted. I negotiated his release from the couch after he sincerely apologized. Maurice obviously has some significant issues. He is nine and cannot read. Between his learning disabilities and behavioral issues Maurice’s future is statistically bleak. The dream for Maurice will go unfulfilled without the resources his community does not have and his country is not willing to share. Imagine a class with ten Maurices in it with neither extra support nor extra resources. Now you have a glimpse into the average day of thousands of urban schoolteachers across America.
Later that evening, the kids were sharing their dreams- places they would like to visit; jobs they would like to have; things they would like to buy. It was a lot of fun and the kids participated with great enthusiasm. I then asked them what were some of the obstacles or things that need to be overcome to achieve their dreams. Chanelle* a bright thoughtful nine year old girl stated, "We have to make sure we do not get shot or killed because there are too many guns and it’s not safe in my neighborhood. We need to stay alive to get our dreams." The other kids nodded in agreement.
Nine year olds should not have to worry about dying on their front lawns. There is a time for demonstration and there is a place for symbolic days. But if these and millions of other kids like them are going to have a chance at the most basic of life's joys and opportunities, then things need to change and more of us have to be working for that change more than one day a year.
That night, Maurice got two more pages of homework done than he had all week and Chanelle felt safe, surrounded by her friends and adults who care about her. That night as I drove home I said a prayer for dreamers and dreams yet to be realized.