And so we had our Martin Luther King ceremony at school and wasn’t that lovely. It alternated between song and speech, included kid singers and speakers, some faculty and me reciting Langston Hughes’ epic “Let America Be America Again” backed by powerful images gather by our librarian in a Powerpoint. Close to the end, I gave the following talk and after watching the last 2 minutes of Dr. King’s iconic speech, 200 children stood, crossed and joined hands and sang from the bottom of their soul “We Shall Overcome.” The tears came as they should and wasn’t that a fine thing? Here is a version of my talk:
Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Look! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman!
When I was a kid, I loved to watch Superman on TV. I thrilled when mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent went into a phone booth and changed into Superman. Now I need to stop here and explain that in the old days, there was something called a phone booth because believe it or not, all phones had wires and if you were out in the world and needed to call someone, you had to put 10 cents into a slot from a public phone. The booth was made of glass and to give you some privacy, you went in and shut the door. One of the big mysteries of Superman wasn’t how he had such super-powers and why kryptonite could weaken him—it was how he could change clothes in such a tiny phone booth. That was see-through and anybody passing by could watch. I’m still trying to figure that out.
But why did I love Superman so much? Because I was a little kid in a world of big strong adults and sometimes it was a scary place. Most people were bigger, stronger, with bigger voices and with the power to make me do things— eat my spinach, get to bed because the clock said so, get out my math book and so on. They could send me out of class out into the hall if they thought I misbehaved—and I did spend almost all of third grade out there— and older, bigger kids could grab me and steal my Halloween candy and I couldn’t do anything about it. And mostly from watching TV, I learned that the world was filled with bad people who lied, cheated, stole things, hurt people, were greedy and took more than their share.
So Superman was my hero. “Oh yeah?! You think you’re going to get away with that? Just you wait! Superman will come flying in and knock your heads together!” How I thrilled when the music swelled and he arrived on the scene and all those big, bad bullies starting quaking in the knees and turned into whimpering, sniveling little cowards they were.
Don’t kids today still love the superheros? And so many more to choose from these days! Wonder Woman, Black Panther, the Hulk and lots more— each with special super-powers that will be useful when the bad guys are at it again. So I totally understand why we love superheros. But someday we grow up and realize that no one is going to save us. And that none of us is invincible.
Martin Luther King seems like a super-hero, but he was a very human human being who loved his wife and kids and sometimes made mistakes and did things that hurt them. And the bullet from the gun didn’t bounce off like it did with Superman. No, it didn’t. He was a strong, courageous man whose life and actions and words can help inspire us to stand up and face people with clubs and guns blocking our path across the bridge. But he was human. One of my favorite images—and saddest— is that just before he stepped out on that balcony in Memphis, a place he came to support garbage workers, he had a meeting with his team. When Andrew Young came a bit late to the meeting, Martin Luther King playfully threw a pillow at him and suddenly, everyone was bonking each other on the head with pillows. I love to think that this was the last thing he did before he left us. Had a playful, joyful and human moment. And then stepped out on that balcony. Where was Superman then?
So we love superheros because we feel powerless and we love their invincibility and power. But then we grow up and realize was are vulnerable and so is everybody we meet. We realize that the only power that counts is the one that we create in ourselves. How can we feel our own power? What kind of power are we looking for? How can we use our powers? How do we respond to others who have the power to hurt us?
Some people have outward power, be in money or position—a President, boss, head of a group. And we hope those people will use their power wisely, with understanding, compassion, intelligence and a vision to help others. Not all of us will get that kind of power nor do all of us want it.
But the truer power is the inward power, the power to make an effort to be better, the power to practice something you love so you can master it, the power to face yourself and others honestly, the power to see beauty in the world and to see the best in others. That last is a teacher’s power . Goethe once said “When we treat a man as he is, we make him worse than he is. When we treat him as if he already were what he potentially could be, we make him what he should be. “
One of the worst things about racism or sexism or ageism or classism or any ism is refusing to see a person for who they really are, dismissing them in a category, arrogantly thinking that any human being has a right to define another based on anything but the proven character of that person. It feels terrible not to be seen or known, whether it’s from strangers far away or people close to you that miss seeing the essence of who you are by believing in who you have been and who you yet might be. As Meg Wollitzer said, “That’s what the people who change our lives always do. They give us permission to be the person we secretly really long to be but maybe don’t feel we’re allowed to be.”
That’s what a good teacher does, what a good person does. Bless you, praise you, believe in you and gives you permission to be the person you know you are deep down, but the rest of the world wants you to hide. So whether it’s outward power or inward power, the question is the same. Will you use it to hurt and harm, or help and heal? Is it bringing more beauty to the world and making it uglier? These are important questions.
So we have to stop waiting for Superman. He’s not coming. And even if he did, there’s no phone booths anymore for him to change in. We have to stop waiting for something to save us.. I-Phone 15 is not going to save us. A political party is not going to save us. The Messiah is not going to save us.
Everything we need to save us is right here in this room. Everything we need is right here in our own mind, our own imagination, our own heart. We are the people we have been waiting for. And when we sing We Shall Overcome, we’re not just talking about stopping the evil actions of greedy, power-hungry people. We’re talking about overcoming our own shortcomings, our own lack of courage, our own refusal to be our whole self because it’s too scary, our own refusal to love because we’re afraid we’ll get hurt. Yes, we have to work to stop the bad guys—and gals—not through head-knocking, but through speaking out, writing to and calling Congresspeople, gathering in the streets and most important of all, voting. But if we don’t pay attention to the bad parts in ourselves, nothing will change. Nothing.
I have a dream too and this school has been the place to try it out. Sometimes it has been truly a heaven on earth and sometimes a hell on earth and sometimes both in the same day. Freedom lives in the human soul and that’s where the most important work takes place. That’s the work we’re trying to do in this school and sometimes we get it right and sometimes we get it terribly wrong, but the important thing is that we keep making the effort. All of us. From the youngest to the oldest, all in it together. And it is that courageous effort that will finally free us from the tyranny of our own smallness and make us the beautiful beings we are and deserve to be. That’s when we are free at last.