Friday, January 18, 2013

The Content of Their Character


“ I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

                                                                                       - Martin Luther King Jr.

Sometimes dreams come true. Today at The San Francisco School, our students fulfilled Dr. King’s prophecy. I conducted a little experiment and they came through with flying colors. Here’s how it went:

I showed the above photo to 100 1st through 5th grade kids and asked them if they had any questions. Here is a sample list:

1)    Who are they?
2)    Where are they?
3)    What are they eating?
4)    Are they having a date?
5)    Is it something romantic?Are they in love?
6)    Is it a wedding?
7)    Is it a camping wedding?
8)    Why is there a ping-pong table?
9)    Is the woman someone who went to our school?
10) Is the man Martin Luther King Jr.’s son?

I then showed a slide of Martin Luther King with the quote above and complemented the kids on their interesting questions, that had everything to do with their curiosity about these two people and the situation and setting and nothing about the fact that the couple in question had two different skin colors. (I did answer their questions as well— for those curious: 1) My daughter Kerala. and her now husband, Ronnie. 2) Up in the Trinitiy Alps. 3) Lasagna. 4) Not exactly. 5) Yes. 6) Yes. 7) Kind of. 8) One of the many things guests could do in the three days there. And then I told them the story about how I played ping-pong with Ronnie and how I’d give permission for him to marry Kerala if he beat me. He did. 9) Yes. 10) No. )

Then I told them, “Fifty years ago, most kids in the U.S. would not come up with these questions. 100 years ago, the law would have arrested my daughter and her husband, for such marriages were illegal. And if all of us lived in those times, we too would probably be stuck in these bad ideas that were all around us. But bad ideas can get smaller in time and you kids just proved how you were more interested in who they were and whether they loved each other and why they had ping-pong at their wedding than in wondering why two people with different skin colors would marry each other. Hooray for you! Hooray for bad ideas getting smaller and treating people decently getting bigger!”

“First comes love. Then comes marriage. Then comes Kerala with the baby carriage.” was my child-sized lead-up to the next slide of granddaughter Zadie. “Who would like to play with Zadie?” 100 enthusiastic hands. “Babysit her?” Again. “For free?” Still enough that I hope my daughter is reading this and will move back to San Francisco from D.C.!

“Well, fifty years ago, you might not want to play with her because the grown-ups around you— your parents, your teachers, your mayors, your ministers— might brainwash you into thinking that was wrong. Or you might secretly want to play with her, but be worried that you’d get in trouble. And in some places, you would! There’s those big bad ideas again and so sad! All those people missing great fun and getting to know great people! But luckily, in our time and in our place here at our school, no one thinks twice about whether it would be fun or not. They’d just try out playing with her and find out!”

“So, kids, I want to show you how bad things can get better and how proud Martin Luther King would be of you and us and our new day. But we can’t relax yet. Because there are still many places and many people today who wouldn’t ask those interesting questions you asked because they haven’t left the bad ideas behind yet. And that my little granddaughter Zadie will probably come home from school someday asking her parents why someone called her an ugly name and what does it mean, anyway? And they will sigh and have to explain to her about the way things were here in this country and how they’re not gone yet.”

“So that’s why we celebrate Martin Luther King Day every year. My friends and I did the best we could to make those bad ideas smaller, but you’ll have to do the rest. And I hope you make them disappear so that Zadie’s children or grandchildren will hear about how things were and think, “What was wrong with those people? That was stupid!”

This was the perfect moment to stand up and sing We Shall Overcome. 100 children linked arm-in-arm singing with such passion and beauty. The adult tear ducts opened wide and some of the kids’ did too. And with the photo of Kerala, Ronnie and Zadie appearing as we modulated to a higher key for the final chorus, it was all I could do to keep playing and not melt into a puddle. Happy MLK Day!



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