The first elementary school I attended in the U.S. was Emerson Elementary School located in Oakland, California. My dad was stationed at Oakland Army Base for three years, and my family flew in from Cavite City, Philippines.
Before Emerson elementary, I went to a regular public school, and before that a Catholic private school (run by nuns who threw erasers at you when you chose to be naughty and talk in class–I still flinch whenever I think of it) during the Marcos regime when the country was under martial law. I still recall when a policy was implemented where all the schools in the Philippines had to use two languages: Tagalog, and English. When we moved to Oakland, I had no idea how life would be like attending a school in which the language I considered as my second.
But, there I was attending Emerson elementary, and my time there has shaped how I see the world today.
For one, the cafeteria walls were covered in a mural of the historical figures who fought for civil rights. The one who always captivated my attention was Dr. Martin Luther King. I always thought that he looked as though he was watching over us eat the crappiest lunch that you can think of: bologna sandwiches, Lays’ potato chips, a cookie, and a red and delicious apple. My eyes always fell on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the quote that was right beside him, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” There was another quote beside that and it was, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
Imagine a child who looked at those images and read those quotes on a daily a basis during lunch hour. A child who spoke several languages, and chose English to be her primary language as she became an adult. A child who early on listened to her classmates as they talked about every form of racism that they’ve experienced during recesses, lunch hours, and school bus rides.
“Jenny, you know why Ms. Julie gave the white kids more tater tots than she gave us, right?”
“No, why?” I asked.
“Because we’re not white, you dum-dum. I’m black, and you’re Filipino. You need to pay attention sometimes!”
There was one teacher who was unrelenting when it came to teaching all of us about awareness for kindness and generosity. Her name was Ms. Curtis-Thomas. I could compare the image I have of her with the hippy yoga teachers of today. In her classroom, we learned about social injustice along with Math and English–but, most of all, she taught us that we should never forget compassion for each other, and for everyone in the world.
I have learned to continue to evolve in my beliefs–whether it be political, moral, socio-economic, and I’ve always credited such evolution to those very first few years at Emerson.
Today, there are many articles are written today (and every year on this day in January) about Martin Luther King, Jr., it did not surprised me one bit that I am still moved by his words when I came across an article on the Washington Post titled, “Martin Luther King Jr.’s scorn for ‘white moderates’ in his Birmingham jail letter” where it states:
In “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” King offered a scathing critique of “white moderates” unwilling to do the right thing that still resonates today:
“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
I am amazed at the eloquence of such words that are profoundly relevant to the climate we find ourselves in today.
I am even more amazed with the rise of social awareness under such tumultuous times that there are those of us who will continue to find a way to dream of a better world for years to come.