Here’s the part where I tell an embarrassing story about myself.
When I was in ninth grade I went to Chaska High School, Chaska being a town west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. At the time it was way out from the Twin Cities, and was borderline rural. Lots of cornfields and open spaces. Prince had his big Paisley Park mansion/studio in the area and we used to see if we could find it…on foot.
Before coming to the area, we had only lived in Minneapolis. Not in “the hood” or anything but I was in public school and was around lots of different kinds of people with many different backgrounds.
There were lots of kids for whom English was a new language,
kids from southeast Asia,
kids from Caucasian backgrounds and
African American kids,
Kids with hyphenated names and kids with Americanized names.
(The luckies got to have two names, while I was stuck with mine, unable to change it to Billie like I wanted.)
We were all part of an equal mix of the elementary school experience.
There was no one who was off-limits for friendship on the basis of color — the off-limits were determined by who was mean or ate boogers. Gross, but true.
When we moved out of Minneapolis, the experience was jarring and very different. Diversity was so natural that up to that point.
-Cue the embarrassing story.-
So I was in ninth grade. It was 1989. I think I was in science class. I’d been sitting there — palms sweating, heart racing, — waiting for the teacher to call my name for attendance. I knew what I wanted to do but I didn’t know if I’d be able to make myself do it. What would people say? Would they understand? Would I get in trouble?
It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day and there was no assembly.
There were no posters.
There had been no discussions, no required reports, no broadcasting of any famous speeches or reading or famous letters.
There was no marking of remembrance or respect for the life of this great man.
I didn’t care if we got a day off from school. I just wanted there to be some acknowledgement that he had made a difference, a monumental difference in the way we conducted ourselves everafter.
And there was nothing.
So I sat there, waiting for the teacher to call my name.
Then he did.
The room was silent.
I stood up. I gathered my books. I told him that I had to go, that I had to go to a birthday party for someone very important to me.
Somehow I had the idea that the holiday was chosen to mark his birthday, which was actually on January 15, 1929. The legislation that was signed into law in 1983 marked the holiday on the third Monday in January and was supposed to begin being observed by 1986. Find out more here: http://bit.ly/1jblo0n
I picked up my books, walked out the door and down the hallway until I found my locker. I put away my books and sat on the cold tile floor until it was time to go to my next class. My statement had been made.
No one walked out after me.
The teacher didn’t chase me down. There was no follow-up, no meeting with a school counselor and I got into no trouble.
I don’t remember if I went to my other classes. I must have, because I didn’t have a car and so couldn’t have left school. I only remember walking out of one class that day. I remember being scared but feeling that someone must do something to get attention on the issue. The administration should know this was important and they should be teaching about Martin Luther King Jr, even if there were no kids of color at the school — it was even more essential to teach about him so that the discrimination of the past wouldn’t continue to be the unspoken norm of the present.
Telling this story, I realize now that my actions did not result in any external changes. The only thing that happened was something in myself.
Do you have any memories specifically tied to Martin Luther King Jr.? What impact do his teachings and life have on the way you view the world?