After winter break, my eldest son came home talking about what he had learned one day in kindergarten.
Stream of consciousness style, he chatted about people that couldn’t ride the bus and broken rules and there was this guy who “had a dream”….
Ok, that did the trick as I tried to keep up.
Do you mean Martin Luther King, Jr? The man who had a dream?
He couldn’t remember his name, but a few more details confirmed his story. Today we recognize the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Earlier this month, a colleague and I visited the memorial on a brisk, breezy afternoon. From within a mighty stone Dr. King’s image loomed kindly yet solemnly against the blue sky. The bright sunshine made me shade my eyes while reading the messages that surround him, words that lifted a desperate populace in need of lifting, a troubled community in need of hope.
Do you want the story or the song, Mom?
I asked for the story first. I filmed it, but it didn’t come out very well so I’m not posting it here, but here is what he said:
“There were some people who couldn’t ride the bus, or any cars, or anything, not even on Christmas, and not until next Christmas. There were unfair rules, lots of them.
Black people and white people couldn’t even have playdates! Isn’t that unfair?!
So that was when Martin Luther King was a little boy, when he was ten, or no – sixteen. He was a teenager. Then he growed up and he gave the I have a dream speech.
He said that he would flip the whole world around and change all the unfair laws. And he did and now any people can ride the bus and he even added more buses and anyone can just ride any bus and any car that they want.”
Then he proceeded to sing me a song, which included plenty of clapping and signing of the words peace, love, freedom and brotherhood.
A few hours later I asked him what freedom means.
If you’re outside, you’re free. If you’re inside, you’re not, he said.
His younger brother was tucked in a crib in the bedroom they share at the moment of my question, so I followed up to make sure I understood.
Is Max free right now?
Nope, not free, he shook his head.
But usually, he’s free. I’m free. Daddy’s free. Coppi (our dog) is free, he clarified.
Ok, what else does freedom mean?
He launched into an episode of superheroes vs bad guys. The bad guys go to jail, and are definitely not free. The good guys help save the world, but sometimes they can’t do everything, Mom.
Well, that’s a relief. None of us good guys have to do everything. And sometimes, depending on our circumstances (like my youngest in a crib), we are not always perceived to be free.
I did find it interesting when he talked about white and black children not being allowed to have play dates. Though we frequently discuss our differences (curly vs straight hair, short vs tall, etc, etc), I have not described people by their skin color to my son. While we were watching the Olympics last summer, we got out the map as I pointed out the Russian gymnasts, the American runners and the Mexican football team, among others.
He was especially taken in by platform diving. Confidently, he announced: When I grow up, I’m going to be a Chinese diver!
Some time has gone by since the 2012 Olympic Games, but I’m still not sure he understands what it means to identify as one race or ethnicity or even to belong to a particular nation (though he does love the American flag). We talk about our differences as he observes them, and let him more or less take the lead. Though I believe that our differences are critically important in the way our communities treat and perceive us (both positively and negatively), I think that the way in which we select to honor or critique our differences is even more so.
At this time in his young life, I believe that the role of Miles’ dad, his teachers and myself is to observe him watch and listen to and learn about the world around him, and guide him on a path on which he can feel surefooted, kind, strong and honest – much like the Rev. Dr. King, perhaps. Or so I can only hope.
I have nothing more to add to my son’s understanding of the role that the Rev. Dr. King played, or what the years that stretched from Dr. King’s youth to his death to the present day mean. On this historic day - historic for many reasons – I take a moment to acknowledge all of the hard work, trials, disappointments and pain, and also consider the real joys, unexpected surprises, and sweet moments that we experience when we pay attention and do our best.
My heart is cracked today, and has been, for as long as I can remember. It overflows with love for my family and friends, tinged with shades of loss that reflect the colors of rain. Last night, I closed my evening with a conversation with a family friend… a dear friend of my parents’, a woman whom I love and admire. I wish there were more time to seek counsel from her because she is wise and honest and funny and serious and fantastic. She is someone with whom I’d leave my children for a week — even though they had just met her. She reminded me of how important relationships are to the way in which we experience our days.
My heart remembers mistakes and missed opportunities. Sometimes against my will and occasionally within it, my heart heals with the intimate knowledge that knowing oneself brings.
Raising a child for whom the world – still – is a place where everyone can do “whatever they want” because of heroes like Rev. Dr. King makes my heart sing, tumble, fill, and hope. Thank you, Dr. King, for your leadership and faith in the goodness of humanity.
And oh yes, welcome, again, Mr. President. I am thrilled to be a small part of your day today.