Monday, January 17, 2005

I teach three year olds on Sundays at church. Yesterday, our class topic was "I Can Taste". As Unitarian Universalists, we celebrate diversity and by exploring the differences and similarities in each person, the children learn to appreciate and respect all walks of life.

Usually, we begin our class by walking to the children's chapel (the adults are in the main sanctuary). There, the children - ages 3 to sixth grade - join for 15 minutes each Sunday to speak the affirmation of the church, hear a story and sing a song before returning to their classrooms for their religious education "RE".

Our Director of RE, Karen, who is about the same age as my parents, told the children a story about how, when she was a little girl, people called those with dark skin "Negroes", "Colored People" or sometimes very bad names. She asked the children if any of them had ever gone to the State Fair and after riding the rides and having food and drink felt they needed to go potty? She went on to ask, "Have you ever had to stand in a long line to go potty?" and "Can you imagine if the bathrooms were really far away, on the other side of the fairgrounds and you had to walk a long way to get there?" Many children nodded in agreement. She then held up two metal signs: "Colored Men" and "Colored Women" and explained that when she was little, people with dark skin had to use a different bathroom than white people. She told a story of how negroes cleaned her house and mowed her lawn, and though she thought they were very nice, she didn't really know them. She also didn't know of inequality as this was just the way things were back then.

She then told the children of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the many things he did to promote civil rights. She explained how it was such a frightening time for everyone and that some who were afraid of the many changes acted violently toward others and some people died. One day, her mother told her that they were going to march in the streets in support of civil rights. It was to be a peaceful and silent march. She said she had never been in that particular neighborhood before and as they were walking, she would look up at her mom and ask questions such as, "Hey mommy, what's that building over there?", etc. Finally, after several questions, which as with all children, were getting louder and louder, a black man somewhere in the mass of people called out to her, "Little girl. You must be quiet." This, she said, was the first time a black man had ever told her what to do. She knew at such a tender age, that this was different and meant something. She did not say a word for the rest of the march.

At the end of this story, Karen made a request of the children. "I would like to try an experiment. Can each group walk back to your classrooms, but this time, walk in silence?" Then, she along with other adults in the room who were old enough to remember those turbulent times, began singing "We Shall Overcome".

We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome some day,
Oh deep in my heart
I do believe
That we shall overcome some day.

We will walk in hand, we will walk in hand,
We will walk in hand some day,
Oh deep in my heart
I do believe
That we shall overcome some day.

Lyrics derived from Charles Tindley's gospel song "I'll Overcome Some Day" (1900).

Of course, by this time, I was a total wreck and thanking God that I had worn waterproof mascara. We teachers led the children back, hand-in-hand to the classrooms in silence. Our silent march back to the classrooms was symbolic of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the many people who tried, through non-violent means to promote the most basic of human be treated equally and with dignity.

This was a very emotional session for me. Several years ago, I visited Selma, Alabama with an African American colleague to assist a young, (also African American) entrepreneur who had organized a business expo where local high school children came to learn about business and future job opportunities. His dream was to show these kids that there was more to life beyond high school and to inspire them to break through any glass ceilings their environment may have imposed on them. These kids are all too young to remember what it was like in Selma in the 1960s, but there is a museum and a bridge that stand very close to each other that is an eternal reminder of how brave many people - both black and white - could be when firmly convicted that civil (and as part of this movement, voting) rights was an absolute necessity.

I visited the museum. It is the National Voting Rights Museum and within its walls lie old black and white photographs that forever changed me as a person. The images captured the faces of oppressed black men, women and children as they marched peacefully in the streets. Images of them being injured on Bloody Sunday as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And the ones that really chilled my of black men hanging by nooses in trees, while white people (even young women!) were smiling and picnicking close by. It was like something from a nightmare to me. Most disturbing was seeing a display of a Ku Klux Klan uniform. Though a piece of cloth, it spoke of so much hatred and I stared at it for a long time thinking of what kind of person would don such a thing, believing their views to be justified. Beyond the horrors of those images, though, were things that made me feel closer to the souls of those who fought with their lives for the right to vote...the plaster footprints of the marchers.

So, once our three year old children had silently marched back to class (okay, a couple of them broke the silence to tell me little factoids that three year olds inevitably have to share), we quite easily incorporated the lesson, "I Can Taste" into a conversation about diversity and how boring it would be if everyone only ate the same food over and over again. We discussed how exciting it can be to try new things and how different flavors are interesting and worth exploring. We sliced up four different types of apples and had the children taste each one. They then voted on which was their favorite, which underscored a principle of Unitarian Universalism that every person's opinion is valued even if it differs from their own. We made food collages on Dixie plates with pictures of food cut from magazines. Then, we made Gorp. Chocolate chips, marshmallows, popcorn, chex, you name it, it was in this big silver bowl of yumminness. The children had a blast making it and taking it home to their brothers and sisters and parents.

So, today I am thankful for Karen's story, which made me very reflective about what this "Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday" means (instead of just being a day away from the office) and how I can pass on the message to my son, that if people are brave and stand up for injustice, change can happen.

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