"Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life."
- Mark Twain
Last October my daughter peeked into our mailbox, and to her great disappointment, found it empty. She muttered "Oh, that's right, it's Columbus Day. No mail delivery." Turning to me she asked "What exactly is Columbus Day anyway?" I told her it of course had to do with Columbus "discovering" America, and beyond that my knowledge is a little sketchy. It seems that with every national holiday, we find ourselves in the same situation. My children ask what it is we are celebrating on Labor Day, and I give them some vague answer, to which they shrug and walk away. All they know is that they have the day off from school and that the mail will not be delivered on that day. There was a time when each of these holidays held special meaning, but unless there are many presents or fireworks involved, it seems that the original intent of the holiday fades in our collective memory.
This month we celebrate our newest national holiday, one that we have celebrated for less than 20 years: Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This year it is celebrated on January 16. The children will have no school and there will be no mail delivery. But do they know why we celebrate?
I asked my children what they knew about Martin Luther King Jr. The answers they gave were pretty accurate: He fought for civil rights for African Americans, he spent time in jail, he led a march in Washington, he wrote the "I Have a Dream" speech, and somebody shot him. My children had been taught well. But I couldn't help but feel that the knowledge they had was a little rehearsed. It was just knowledge, knowledge in the head, but not in the heart. This bothered me. I want my children to understand the significance of this holiday, and more especially the significance of the man himself. I want to teach my children about Martin Luther King Jr. and the great things he did to promote equality in this nation. I want them to understand his intelligence, his great speaking skills, his faith, and most importantly, his courage.
I took a trip to the library to find a few books about Martin Luther King Jr., and I found over 30 children's books written on the subject. Nearly all of them were well written, well researched, and beautifully illustrated. There were books for all age groups from toddler to teen. Yet, when I tried reading these books with my kids, their eyes glazed over, they looked out the window, and said "Yah, Mom, we learned all about this at school." Martin Luther King had become an academic subject for them. He was a great guy who did some great things. Yet he seemed unreachable. I wondered how I could make this great man more real and meaningful to them and to their lives.
Buried in my stack of library books, I found one sparkling solution to my quest. It is called "My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr." (Simon and Schuster, 2003). It is written by Martin Luther King Jr.'s big sister, Christine King Farris. Written in a simple, straightforward style, this book tells what it was like growing up with her brother, Martin Luther King Jr. Christine describes her childhood with M.L. (the family's nickname for Martin), and their youngest brother, A.D: "...like three peas in a pod, we grew together. Our days and rooms were filled with adventure stories, and Tinkertoys, with dolls and Monopoly and Chinese checkers." We learn that "M.L."was just a normal kid who liked to play practical jokes on the piano teacher and the neighbors next door. M.L. also liked to play baseball with the white boys across the street until the children's mother put an end to it. Trying to explain to the confused children why this happened, M.L. and Christine's mother told him "'They don't understand that everyone is the same, but someday, it will be better.'" According to his big sister, M.L. looked into his mother's face and said "Mother Dear, one day I'm going to turn this world upside down."
What struck me about this story was that in fact, Martin Luther King Jr. was just a regular kid, with some remarkable insights. Insights we hear everyday from our own children, if we take the time to acknowledge and nurture these insights into action.
On top of that, he had exceptional parents, who provided models of courage and integrity to their children. According to Christine, "A police officer pulled Daddy over and called him 'boy'. Daddy pointed to M.L. sitting next to him in the car and said, 'This is a boy. I am a man, and until you call me one, I will not listen to you.' "
So this year my children and I are talking differently about Martin Luther King Jr. Sure, we remember the great speeches, and the thousands who marched with him to Washington. But mostly we remember a little boy. A boy who knew from an early age that he would fight for justice for all people. Using little M.L. as an example for themselves, my children are thinking that perhaps they too can speak up when someone is being excluded or bullied or shunned, because they are different.
As a parent, I'm thinking differently about this day too. I'm looking for ways that I can nurture that spark in my children, the one that will want to fight for justice and peace in this world, just as Martin's parents did. And I'll be looking for ways that I can be a model of justice and courage for my own children.
Christine King Farris ends the book "My brother never forgot the example of our father, or the promise he made to our mother on the day his friends turned him away. And when he was much older, my brother M.L. dreamed a dream that turned the world upside down."
Maybe with a little effort and a lot of courage local families and those around the world can all do the same.