03 May 2011
How Did This Person Change the World (in his blue suede shoes)?
In January, I took my first plunge into the icy waters of "questioning school curriculum" by raising the issue of Martin Luther King Day - and the absence of any actual mention of Martin Luther King previous to the day off of school that is granted to us so that we may honor him.
Liam woke up on his day off of school and I said, "Happy Martin Luther King Day!"
"Don't you know what day it is?" I asked.
"Do you know why you have the day off?"
"No one at school told you why you have the day off?"
"Do you know who Martin Luther King is?" I asked.
Confused, I dug up some brown markered color sheets from his time in the Minneapolis school system. "Remember this guy?"
"Didn't you talk about him this week?"
Stunned. And pissed.
Part of the reason I was unsettled is because I was still stinging from the archaic all-school assembly they had for Veteran's Day - after which I knowingly asked "Liam, what is a veteran?" And he answered "I don't know. They didn't tell us."
So when MLK Day passed without nary an announcement over the PA system or a dramatic reading by a pimply 8th grader or even a freakin' color sheet covered in brown marker, I thought I might make a polite inquiry.
Mrs. Teacher was on it. She's young and aware and knew this could look bad to people from the outside. She ever so delicately assured me that she had every intention of introducing Martin Luther King in their upcoming biography unit. And Rosa Parks (that's a twofer! and kids love buses). The biography unit culminates in a "Wax Museum" in which the children dress up as their chosen hero and answer questions from the "museum patrons" (me and 20 other parents trying so hard not to laugh - WITH them, not AT them). There was no guarantee that anyone would actually choose Martin Luther King as their chosen hero but she assured me he would be mentioned.
So after being introduced to a myriad of characters who changed our world - black, white, men, women, white, men, white, men (oh stop it, kristin! quit being so judgey!) - Liam chose to study (drum roll, please).............
And I'm going with it because this is his project and his choice is pretty indicative of his interests right now. But we have to craft an answer to the first required question: "How did this person change the world?"
Did he cure disease? No. Did he fight for the rights of the underdog? No. Did he invent a machine that changed how society operates? No. Did he sing a song called "Hound Dog?" YES! So Liam wants to go with "He invented rock and roll." Which would be great! If it were true. But images of Chuck Berry and Little Richard and hundreds of unknown African-American musicians nag at my conscience - so, no, we can't say that.
How about "He brought the music of black people to a wider audience?"
Which Mike hears as "a whiter audience." Which, actually, turns out to be true. Here's the not-so-uplifting version of history that did not go into the 2nd grade report:
White people wouldn't listen to music by black people. In fact, many kids were actually punished if they were caught listening to music by black people. But music producers knew that kids would love it and, more importantly, BUY it if they could just find a white guy to sing it. And when a country singer named Elvis Presley came to Sun Records to make a pretty song for his mother, they found their man. He was unmistakably white but he could shake, rattle and roll like a house afire. And, voila, rock and roll was born. Or maybe I should say born again. Now that's a bedtime story.
But 2nd grade history has its own special spin; perspective is everything, isn't it? So we do the best we can to be honest without going over their heads. And most of the time, they hear what they want to hear anyway, am I right? Here are some 2nd grade nuggets I learned from the heroes I met at the Wax Museum:
1. Christopher Columbus discovered the West Indies.......which is another name for America.
2. Columbus' trip from Spain, to the West Indies, and back took 3 or 4 days.
3. Princess Diana was killed when she was kissed by the paparazzi.
4. And, for my very biased favorite, please see the last item on the timeline below.
Elvis died of junk food. Let that be a lesson to you all; junk food kills! If someone tries to give you a Hoho, do like Nancy Reagan and JUST SAY NO!