My Six Year Old knows why he is off school today — Martin Luther King, Jr. was a peace-maker. That is the first grade description. Blacks and whites used to fight, then he gave a speech and things got better. I was glad that he knew that much — though the frame of fighting replaced by peace eliminates the strand of prejudice. Now whether his teacher chose to emphasize peace rather than bias, or if that is merely what stuck in Rafi’s mind, I am not sure. I supplemented the story with one Dr. King often recounted — a commercial that came on TV showing an amusement park that excited one of his daughters. But, Dr. King was forced to tell her that blacks were not allowed to go there. As I expected, Rafi could identify with the girl, the appeal of the park, the frustration, and thus why it was so right and honorable that Dr. King worked to change those rules. This little morning dialog along with oatmeal and plans for holiday activities made me feel that MLK day is working — it has made the Civil Rights struggle such a school-time standard that even at the most basic level, kids need to know something about it.
And yet. Last week when I spoke with high school teachers in California, my last presentation was about how to teach the 20th Century. This is a big challenge for many reasons. There is too much to say and too little time. The issues are both forgotten (the Cold War has gone seriously cold as a topic of interest) and still sensitive (the Tea Party critique of Obamacare has a lot in common with anti-New Deal arguments against “creeping socialism” and big government). And then there is what I think can be the key to opening up the story — if teachers are willing to take the risk. The big change in our 21st Century lives is that we live in a culture that values sharing over secrecy. Kids post too much about themselves, and the so-called secrets of so-called celebrities fill websites, magazines, reality shows and Youtube clips. For much of the 20th century famous people could keep their private lives hidden — risking exposure only in scandal sheets of ill-repute, or tell-all books after they died. But those secrets did finally emerge. And so as we talk about JFK and Dr. King — they are flawed human beings who faced great challenges. And it seems to me we owe it to high school kids to describe these leaders as they were, as human, as flawed, and as capable of greatness.
For a first grader it is enough to know about Dr. King, his speech, his challenge, and the kinds of changes he helped to bring. But for high school students who have heard versions of that story every year since they themselves were in first grade, that is not enough. The Claudette Colvin book was such a perfect biography for teenagers because she made mistakes, she had a temper, she fought with her boyfriend, she got pregnant. She was not an ideal image on a TV screen, she struggled as we all struggle. But she also took risks for what she believed was right. If we want high school kids to care about Dr. King and the Civil Rights struggle, then we need to show them that normal, real, flawed, human beings made the change — not saints and prophets from a time of heroes and legends.