“I have GOT to talk to you!” she said, coming out into the hallway. Her hushed, serious tone told me this wasn’t a cute kid story from the day.
“Oh no!” I said aloud, pausing my chore of stuffing Friday Folders for the students to bring home. “What happened?”
“Well, I just wanted to alert you that your son was in tears today at school. We were talking about Martin Luther King Jr and why this holiday is so important….”
She went on to explain that some kids felt “free” to share the information they had gathered from older siblings and elsewhere – stories of violence and racism. It was much more than this first-grade teacher was planning to share with her classroom of six-year-olds.
“His mouth dropped open and tears were running down his little face. I am so sorry – I just wanted to warn you he may need some debriefing tonight.”
I thanked her and wondered what school pick-up would hold for us later that day.
As I walked up to the door, he came flying out of the school; red-faced and still horrified about this new knowledge he had gained. I hugged him hard and long. I asked him what was on his mind, and for several minutes, my reserved, little-man-of-few-words regaled the tales of burning crosses, arrests for using the wrong water fountain, and bricks through windows.
“Mom – they even burned peoples’ houses down! Their houses, Mom!” He stood, head hanging low, hot tears spilling over in disbelief. “How could anyone do that?”
My son’s innocence to racism died that day. Prior to this, the worst he could imagine was his younger brother breaking the Lego creation he’d worked so hard on. Now, his worldview had been opened to the hateful side of humanity, where people are devalued and homes are destroyed all because someone looks different.
I grabbed his hand and started for the van, my mind brimming with thoughts and questions. Why did he have to learn this so early in his life? Why did he have to learn it all? No one should. And yet there are kids his age and even younger who have not only witnessed discrimination but experience it daily. The whole dilemma ripped at my heart.
He was quiet and somber for much of the evening – his mind still trying to make sense of all that he’d heard that day. At bedtime, I finished tuck-in-time with a prayer, per our usual routine. As I said “Amen,” this shaky voice blurted out an addition to what had already been said: “And please help people to stop burning down other peoples’ houses!” I opened my eyes to see his hands grasped tightly together, eyes squeezed shut in concentration. Everything about that prayer made my being tingle – an advocate for justice had been awakened and he meant business.
Several years later, my oldest still has a strong sense of justice and shudders at inequality – unless it means he gets more cookies than his siblings! The impact of that MLK Day experience lit a fire-of-fairness and respect–for-all in a way that I am grateful for and couldn’t have imagined.
As a result, my husband and I have made the choice to “expose” our other kiddos to the reality of racism and prejudice in our world today. We watch movies like Hidden Figures and 42 – the story of Jackie Robinson. We talk (within reason and tastefully) about Hitler’s hatred for the Jews and the ethnic cleansing of the Rwandan Genocide. We talk about those in our neighborhood, classrooms, and city who are shunned and treated poorly for what they look like, how they act or where they live. We talk about the homeless, the refugees, the disabled, and the elderly. We talk about the atrocities done to the Dakota and Ojibwe tribes that resided on this land far before we arrived; things done in the name of progress. And the list goes on….
We talk about the prejudices hidden in each of us and the need to become aware of them so we don’t grow into monsters of entitlement and self-righteous action; so we don’t rationalize the devaluation of others. We look at the awful not because we want to, but because we need to. We need to be horrified at it and face it together. We need to remember that a change is necessary – that we are each called to be advocates of justice.
As I drive my kids to school in the morning, my prayer for them almost always includes this:
May they have the courage to do what is right, even when it’s hard.
You see, we are working to teach our kids to love and respect humans – even the ones we disagree with and don’t understand. And we will take EVERY opportunity we are given to extend a hand in friendship and care – even in the craziest of circumstances – because it is right and good to do so.
MLK day still brings me pause. It’s a reminder to evaluate what my part is in making our world safer and better for all. Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy is reminding us all these years later that our past doesn’t have to be our future; that one person can begin the change, continue the change and have the courage to do what is right – even when it’s hard.