“We learned about a man who got killed today,” a kindergarten boy solemnly informed me Friday afternoon. We were waiting in the cafeteria to board buses at dismissal time. The day before, he had been all excited about his train book he had checked out from the library. But now things had gotten serious.
I wasn’t sure how to respond.
“Martin Luther King,” the little girl next to him nodded.
“Oh,” I said, somewhat relieved. I don’t know why that made it better – that it was a man who was killed years ago instead of hours ago. Time shouldn’t make it less disturbing, should it?
“No one liked what he said, his speeches,” the boy went on, “so the police killed him.”
“Wait a second!” I said, as gently as I could, “The police did not kill him. A bad man did. And lots of people did like his speeches.”
“Okay,” the boy said. He didn’t seem very concerned with the details. But he patted me on the arm because he could see that I did care.
By then it was time to board the bus, so the conversation was over.
The day before, I had been talking about courage with my 5th graders. They had to rank 5 pictures from lowest to highest on how much courage they felt was being demonstrated in each image. There was disagreement about the ranking of a picture that showed a Selma protest march. Before ranking, the students had set some criteria for courage, one of which was that the person chose to perform that action not knowing if the outcome would be harmful to him or her.
“I ranked it high because they were marching for their civil rights,” one student said.
“But they didn’t have a choice!” one student exclaimed.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“They weren’t getting treated right, so they had to march. It wasn’t their choice, so it’s not courage!”
I tried to wrap my mind around this interesting logic and a few of us did our best to explain the situation – which the student admitted he didn’t know very much about.
“Well, and plus, they didn’t have to worry about being harmed because we have the right to protest, don’t we?” he asked.
Wow, I thought. This had obviously not been covered in his history class.
Ironically, our entire conversation had been brought about because we just finished reading The Giver, a book about a dystopian society where only one person holds all of the memories of the past – the good and the bad. We had talked about the importance of keeping even horrible memories because we learn from them. Yet here we were struggling to understand the importance of historical moments that are already starting to fade as newer generations tell the story with less and less detail.
I am worried. Every time I read The Giver with a class, I try to get across the message that, even though it’s fictional, it is not entirely unrealistic. People are willing to give up many freedoms to ensure safety – especially if they have no experience in having their rights taken away. I don’t want to be an alarmist, and I don’t want to send my students to bed with nightmares about atrocities from the past (or even the present). But I worry that we assume that rights that have been won can never be lost, and underestimate the incredible courage and strength it takes to capture and retain our tenuous freedom.
I’m sorry that I was relieved when I found out my student was talking about the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. We should all be just as angry and horrified today as those who mourned when it happened. We need to feel the pain of his death so acutely that we will not allow those circumstances to ever develop again. I feel, especially in our country this week, that we are at an important crossroad and we desperately need the wisdom of the people who understand what it really means to live in, “The Land of the Free.”