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A new appreciation for a special holiday

Confession: I never thought much of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

As a youth, it was vexing. You return to school after a holiday break and -- bam! -- another holiday. Obsessive student that I was, I didn't see it as a vacation day, but rather as extra time to perfect my homework.

As a newspaper reporter, it was an annoyance. I never got the day off, but just about everyone else in the world did. It's not easy to get an official on the phone to discuss, say, budget cuts in health care, while that person is skiing or shopping a sale at Macy's.

As a working mom, it was yet another day I would have to take off work. My husband and I just finished juggling our schedules around the holiday break, and now this?

I was too busy being inconvenienced by the holiday to think about its meaning. Until a bunch of kindergartners set me straight.

I had rushed into Rosa's classroom after a harried morning with the kids. Nobody woke up on time, nobody wanted what I fixed for breakfast, nobody wanted to wear the clothes I got out for them the night before.

After this, plus having to drive the two girls to their different schools, I was late for my every-other-Thursday volunteer commitment in Rosa's classroom. (My husband takes the other Thursdays, bless him).

The children were on the rug, discussing a book on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that the teacher had been reading to the class. They were so into it, they didn't see me come in.

"Now, who can remember what Dr. King's job was?" the teacher asked.

A sea of hands shot up.

"A doctor," one little boy said.

"A bishop," another shouted out.

The teacher paused.

"Well, he was a doctor, but not the kind you go to if you're sick," she said. "And we call him a minister, someone who leads a church."

Next question. "Now, who can remember, what did Martin Luther King want?"

This time, only one boy raised his hand.

"Change," he said.

"What did he want to change?" the teacher continued. "Could black people drink out of the same drinking fountains as white people? Could they go to the same schools?"

I heard this and panicked.

Now, most parents would see this talk as a routine discussion about a legendary civil rights leader, a way to explain why we should treat everyone fairly, regardless of differences.

But not me. My daughter is half African-American and -- until that day -- I'm pretty sure she didn't know that people with dark skin like hers used to be second-class citizens.

I wasn't sure I wanted her to know. At least not yet.

Who would want her child -- the baby she cuddled and rocked and mooned over -- to realize that, in another time, she would have had to use a separate drinking fountain because of her race?

The teacher went on.

"Now, Martin Luther King had a friend when he was little, a white friend ... just like Rosa has Abby."

Abby is Rosa's best friend. I held my breath.

"You guys got to come to school together, right?" the teacher asked. "But that didn't happen to Martin Luther King."

The class gasped.

"Would it be fair for Rosa to have to go to a different school?" the teacher asked.

"No," the children shouted, outraged.

The discussion progressed, veering away from race. I slowly let out my breath.

One boy pointed out that, even though one kindergarten teacher has brown hair and the other has gray, the two are friends. Another said people with brown eyes and blue eyes can be friends, too.

"It doesn't matter if you're different," said one girl, "it matters if you're kind or not."

King would have been proud.

When we got home, I longed to talk about all this. But Rosa, always famished after a long morning in kindergarten, was more interested in her bagel and cream cheese.

I tried to bring up the subject at bedtime, too, but it was a no-go. I'm not sure she got the point.

But I did.

What if Rosa couldn't go to school with Abby, whom she's known since she was in diapers? What if she couldn't marry whom she wanted? Go where she wanted? Do what she wanted? All because of the color of her skin.

Let's just say I have a renewed appreciation for King.

From now on, I won't let the holiday pass by. We will see it as a gift, a time to do something special, something together, something that matters.

King's hope that children might be judged by "the content of their character ... (and not) by the color of their skin" has been mostly realized.

And that's something to celebrate.

Kerry McCray's daughter started kindergarten this year. Her column is part of a series looking at the first year of school from a mom's point of view.

Bee staff writer Kerry McCray can be reached at kmccray@modbee.com or at 578-2358.

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