I sat staring at the screen. Images of skin tones and crowds of people blurred the page; a courageous, booming voice seemed to fill the silent room where I sat. I had come face to face with these words before, but not like this. They’d never shaken me like this.
The sound of him echoing over a crowd was on loop, “I have a dream that one day little black boys and black girls will be holding hands with little white boys and white girls.”
I read it again. And again. I glanced at the clock. 11:17 AM. My time to figure out this lesson was dwindling.
At this point in my career, I’ve planned hundreds of lessons for English learners. Thousands of hours, no exaggeration, have been clocked with refugees and immigrants.
We’ve practiced some really hard grammar points and learned how to play some cultural games. We’ve practiced the hard math problems. My kiddos and I have had some practice managing our emotions and meltdowns in real time. We’ve talked about how to cope with some of the most confusing feelings going on inside of us.
Planning lessons, preparing contingencies, adapting in the moment, and teaching diverse classrooms is a part of my weekly rhythm. I know I’m still young, but I’m past a lot of my earliest classroom jitters.
But no lesson I’ve ever taught has felt as intimidating to me as yesterday’s lesson on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
He exemplified courage and commitment in the face of adversity. He remained faithful to his conviction of equality and sought change that would continue for generations. He was – is – a hero. He’s a role model we can all look to, a man of peace of wisdom. He’s the kind of person I want to teach my students about.
So why was I nervous to lead this lesson?
Because while I’m grateful for his legacy and the opportunity to honor him, it feels a shame that we ever came to that point in the first place.
How do you look at a classroom of children from 8 different countries, each beautifully wearing a different shade of skin, and explain that America hasn’t always been like this? How do you tell them that our history is tainted with the judgement of another person, just because of the color of their skin? How do you explain they wouldn’t have always been welcome here?
I couldn’t tell them this, but I know the truth: that one day, not all too long ago, our wonderfully diverse classroom would have been impossible.
I also know the harder truth: that many people still won’t welcome them here.
Although I don’t really get jitters before leading one of my classes anymore, I do often feel unqualified. I always need to remember that my ability to love and lead comes from the Lord. Not myself.
But yesterday, I felt deeply unqualified. I was keenly aware of my whiteness. It shook me more than it has before, especially this year.
How could I, a white girl from small town Tennessee, tell the story of a vile past at the hands of others who look like me with intent to harm innocent people who look like them?
How could I, this girl who has lost nothing compared to all my refugee students have lost, stand up and tell the history I wish could be undone? The same history that has not affected me like it has my colored, marginalized, and accused neighbors?
It felt unfair. To stand up in front of this beautifully colored class and talk about segregation – it was the hardest thing I’ve done in a while.
I’ve taught about Martin Luther King, Jr. before. I’ve heard his story for nearly a lifetime. But like many of you, I’m awakened to it for the first time now. It’s not just a story on a page about some man who made a big difference; it’s a cruel history still in the hard process of redemption.
I can’t change the fact that I am a white girl from small town Tennessee. I can change my actions though. I can stand up for what’s right even if my knees are shaking, I can teach a younger generation that they are valued, and I can do the work of creating diverse classrooms. I can commit myself to always learning more, to hearing every side. I can choose to not be blind.
Above all, I can humble myself. I can keep myself low before the Lord and keep working.
I’m not a perfect teacher, and despite what they might think, I don’t have many answers. However, my prayer is that they would know they are loved by this small-town white girl. My prayer is that when they are a little older and able to put together more of these complicated pieces, that they would remember how equal and fair our classroom was regardless of the nation’s messy history. My prayer is that when they remember me, they would remember felt safety.
There’s little that can be done about the deep sorrow I feel inside me; the past cannot be undone. My only consolation is knowing that the generous, unquestioning love I offer now could play a small role in changing the future.
During our lesson, one of our students raised her hand to share a thought. She said, “I like being friends with white and black people. Everyone is so nice. I like being friends with everyone.”
I remembered that line again –
“I have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.”
Change is happening, even in the youngest of hearts. The work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was honored in our diverse classroom yesterday. I only hope he’d be proud of the sorrowful, yet hopeful, white girl too.