Last Friday I showed Dr. King's Dream speech to my new after school theatre club. They paid attention in varying degrees. Some were entranced; some tapped their fingers in boredom; some couldn't get into it at all. To be fair, these kids are at varying degrees of literacy - ranging from 2nd grade to 7th grade - and the speech's rhetoric goes over the heads of many adults. And I showed them the whole fifteen minute speech, not just the iconic ending.
They knew though, the minute Dr. King began to say "Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama..." the tone had changed. Fingers stopped tapping; eyes stopped wandering. One girl even emphatically said "Amen!" when Dr. King began saying "Let freedom ring..."
It was pretty moving to see my students, all of whom come from immigrant families, perform the speech after having watched it. These kids deal with discrimination on a daily basis. They live in an area of Los Angeles that is known as the Mexican barrio - its neighborhoods are ridden with poverty and gang activity - and their socioeconomic position puts them in a place never to overcome the challenges they face. Many of their peers at other schools will drop out of high school (if they make it there at all), and very few of them will enter college. My students have something of a better chance - our school demands a huge commitment from our students and their families. Our charter organization is committed, in its very name, to uplifting the whole community. We ask for involvement on all levels. The idea is to foster an awareness of and appreciation for the good things that the Mexican barrio has to offer in order to help nurture students who will go on to college educations and then return to help change the community for the better.
I know these aspirations for our students are very difficult to achieve, and that kind of awareness does not come from one lesson, taught in one day, but instead from years of encouragement and motivated teaching. I am hopeful however as I look around at my fellow teachers who all share my impassioned concern for not only our students, but also for our community and for our country. These are the young people who will go on to make the next great American speeches that will change the country for the better, and make it a more welcoming, accepting, and loving land where freedom truly does ring from every hillside and mountaintop. And we can never be satisfied, as Dr. King said, until that day comes.