Friday, January 14, 2005

Today I was The Man.

I didn't think I was wading out into a sea of cultural bear traps but I did.

What's that, you say? You want to confuse some very young children in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day? Well, this is one way to do it.

I was initially excited to talk to the kids about one of my heroes whom I have personally admired for his courage, dedication and compassion.

I'm teaching a class composed entirely of black and Hispanic five and six-year-old children about Martin Luther King Jr. I begin by tell them all about what a great man Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was. I tell them about how he used peace and love to help create opportunities and change the world for the better. I explain very simply how black and dark-skinned people used to be forced to sit in the back of the bus and would never be considered as smart as white people, how they couldn't even use the same drinking fountains as white people in many places or eat in the same restaurants as white people, etc. I ask them if it seems fair for people who aren't white to be forced to go to schools that aren't as good as the schools white children go to. (Yeah, kinda like this one, oops) I tell them all about about how Dr. King worked tirelessly for equality for African Americans. He showed people that we need to share our country and the things we have. And trust me on this one this heavy duty stuff is a bit more complicated than your typical Berenstein Bears plot but I'm thrilled because they really seem to be getting it and appreciating the hardships that men and women of color had to endure. I emphasize the great strides that our country has made since the terrible days when black men and women could be bought and sold as slaves to do the work of their white masters. That's when one of the little boys in my class says-

"But Mr. K, you're white and you tell us what to do."

Me: (LONG LONG PAUSE) "Uh... That's true but... Um"

That took me by surprise and I fumbled around a bit and eventually got across the idea that I was in charge not because I was white but because I was the teacher. Everything seemed fine and dandy and then little Niessa asks-

"Do we have any black teachers at this school, Mr. K?"

Me: "No, we don't. But we do have a few Hispanic teachers."

So I manage to verbally limp back on track and go on about how Martin Luther King Jr. gave great speeches on how all people are equal and how he dreams that people will be judged by their heart and how they treat people, not by the color of their skin.

I talk about the many people that didn't like Dr. King and fought against these good and fair ideas.

Bam! More tough questions.

"Why didn't they like his ideas?"

No way to explain institutionalized racism and generational and cultural bias to kindergarteners. I have nothing here.

"Were those white people who hated him?"

Me: (Oh, Fuck) Uh, yes, but not all... Only... Those were white people who were... Only some white people who were not good and caring people fought against Dr. King."

At last, I'm in the clear worked my way out of that. Then I tell them that it's very sad, but Dr. King was doing wonderful work and helping to make changes when he was shot and killed by a man with a rifle. A rifle is a big long gun, I explain.

Tyran: "Was is a white man what killed him?"

Me: "Yes, it was. A very bad white man. And bad is something.... Um... that... is on the inside of a person and has nothing to do with what color skin color you have. So you can be a bad black person or a bad-- Black people aren't bad... You can be white and good or white and bad. Any color person can be bad... or good."

Now I'm even a bit perplexed. Am I part of the problem?

I've lost them completely at this point. Blank and confused stares and squints. Even more than in a normal kindergarten class.

"Did he die?"

Me: Who?

"Dr. King."

Me: "Yes, Jorge, he was a real person and when real people are killed, they don't come back they gone. And that's why it is so sad that a man who worked so hard for peace was killed for his kindness and his ideas. That's why we celebrate the great things that Dr. King did while he was alive.

"A white man made Dr. King dead?"

Me: "Yes."

"Teacher, why he killed him?"

He had hate in his heart and (trying to dodge the question) they caught him and put him in prison and they never, ever let him out.

"But, and we have no school on Monday. That's good."

It's- no... yes... We celebrate Dr. King's life, not his death. The good things he did to make our country better for everyone.

Lots of hands go up with questions. So I did what any good kindergarten teacher would do in that situation. I quickly grabbed and read a rhyming book about lady bugs. Mercifully, there were no tough lady bug questions to answer. Then we all danced to Mickey Mouse's Dance Party Mix. Saved by the gloriously limited attention span of children.

Then we watched The Very Hungry Caterpillar on Video.

So: Kids, what did we learn?

1) White people (who look like Mr. K) killed a wonderful black man.

2) Racial stuggles: Not the easiest of topics to explain to minority kinders.

3) Bugs! A nice safe subject.

After that I was far too anxious to read the book their teacher had planned about the two brown monkeys who escape and the nice white zoo keeper who finds them and takes them back home after that. I wasn't taking any chances I could just see the kids going home with fact and fiction all jumbled up.

"Mom, Dad, today Mr. K told us white people were better than black people and the brown monkeys and they killed the black King and he got killed and the zoo keeper put them all back where the black people belong because they shouldn't go there 'cause it was for white people only."

That would be a fun phone call from home.

This link is much more in the spirit of Civil Rights and desegregation. I think the late, great Dr. Kig would have approved. Plus it's just fucking funny.


Anonymous said...

Oh Kranki, you make me smile. Thank you for a very funny description of your teaching adventures.
-Lady R

Puffin said...

Re: Black People Love Us
laughed so hard I choked and sprayed coffee all over my collection of desktop Sanrio dolls.

You've Got What I Need... said...

kranki- this warmed the cockles of my tired and jaded heart.

You, sir, are a winner!

knifey said...

kids really do say the darnedest things!