Martin Luther King Day reminds a school principal of the right kind of dissatisfaction: To recognize what's wrong and to feel that something better is possible – and you can help fix it.
I celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. today. Perhaps it’s because my father spent part of his newspaper career traveling through Alabama to Selma, Birmingham and Montgomery covering the famous civil rights demonstrations led by Dr. King. Perhaps because King would be the same age as my father. But I think it’s mostly because King taught me how to be positively dissatisfied, something I hope I’ve conveyed to my children and students.
His was a simple message: how to object to injustice. “This isn’t right; something better is possible.” But there’s a crucial coda: “I can help to fix it.” Many have identified injustice; few have given the tools for change to the powerless. King, the legendary American, the Nobel laureate, the preacher, the courageous man, connects me to the essence of my work in education.
Working in schools, I know that children have an innate ability to flag injustices and feel that “something better is possible.” In schools, we witness these individual consciences making a difference every day, often in the face of the bland or arrogant voice of tradition saying “that’s just the way it is,” pleading for the status quo. But in their wonderful small ways, children refute limitations. In their small ways, they live those words that King seems to own: They have a dream.
Enacting dreams can become fraught. Teachers too are nagged by the voice saying “that’s just the way it is;” that teaching even the smaller kindnesses isn’t worth it. The voices of gossip, teasing, exclusivity or indifference plead constantly in our daily walk with classmates and colleagues around the schoolyard. Why does it grow harder to say “That’s not fair” to the little stuff, much less the sublime threats to civility? Teachers must clarify values and opportunities for leadership every chance we get, be it the barbed note passed in class, graffiti in the bathroom, the inward knife of cheating, or the put-downs given such celebrity in our culture of irony.