Reaching for the Moon

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We hadn’t intended to visit the Memorial after dark; I wasn’t even sure the capitol grounds were open that late, but other people meandered up the lamp lit sidewalks, so we crossed over the shadowy lawn.

In the short time we had, I wanted to show Kevin the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial that claims its unlikely real estate on Capitol Square outside the gates of the executive mansion of what was, once, the Capital of the Confederacy. The sculpture tells the story of 16-year old Barbara Johns, who led her fellow students in a walkout to protest separate—and very much unequal—conditions at Robert R. Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia in 1951. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 waited thirteen long years in the future.

What followed the walkout was a lawsuit that eventually joined with four other cases to become the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, in which the United States Supreme Court struck down the separate but equal racial doctrine.

“It seemed like reaching for the moon,” said Ms. Johns, and looking back, it was. Following this court decision, powerful US Senator Harry F. Byrd, from Virginia, rallied over 100 others around his “Southern Manifesto,” which opposed racial integration. Byrd and his followers had no need of white hoods; they were duly elected American lawmakers.  They launched their “Massive Resistance” campaign, and in 1959, Prince Edward County closed all its public schools rather than integrate them.

I was in junior high school when Virginia schools were finally integrated in 1971, 20 years after the Moton High School walkout.

In 2008, Kevin and I attended a concert in Richmond and watched as then Governor Tim Kaine took the stage with Dave Matthews.   A Virginia governor was introducing a white man from South Africa, both of them campaigning to elect the man who would become the first African-American president of the United States.   It felt surreal in the best of ways. Here we stood, just blocks away from the avenue that is home to  larger than life statues of men who fought an entire war to prevent just such a thing from happening.

Back at the Civil Rights Memorial, Kevin and I soaked in this dark yet hopeful chapter of race relations in Virginia while the students of Moton High School stood before us in bronze relief, Barbara Johns’ arm raised skyward. As we turned to make our way back to the car,  a quarter moon cast its glow above the rooftops of the city. We took one last look over our shoulder to see Ms. Johns, forever reaching.

There Ought to be a Law

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Attention Congress, state legislatures, local governments:  I am proposing a law that requires every elected official in America to spend at least one day as a substitute teacher in a first grade class in a public school. To see what you’re funding. Or not funding.

Here is how your day might go:

You walk into your class that morning, and the first thing you notice is a handful of kids eating school breakfasts at their desks. A handful in this class of twenty equals 20%.   That’s when it occurs to you— possibly for the first time—that in some places, one in five kids goes hungry until lunchtime. You remember feeling hungry, don’t you? It’s tough to concentrate. Difficult to grasp new concepts. If it’s hard for you, what is it like for a first grader?   It’s impossible.

What appears at first to be chaos to you, is simply the fact that you don’t know the routine and the kids do. Because of this, you will be forced to ask a bunch of six-years old what to do. And they will tell you.

Once they realize that you are at their mercy, you are fresh meat to hungry wolves. “Our teacher lets us do this. I’m allowed to sit here. Can I go to the nurse? Our teacher always gives us candy now.” That’s how intelligent they are. So think about it. If they are capable of this level of complex stratagem at this age, imagine what they will do out in the world with the proper guidance and role models.

As you begin to figure out the system, your respect for their teacher grows exponentially. After all, she is the one who, at the beginning of the year, took these twenty little people and taught them cues that would quiet and calm them so that she could do what comes next.

Which is to teach them. Teach them letters, then words, then sentences. Teach them numbers, then math. Teach them how to write all these things.

All the while teaching them to get along with nineteen other little people, with the kids in other classes, with various adult personalities. To exercise restraint. To show respect for one another. To collaborate. To work independently. To figure things out for themselves. To ask for help.

But you’re not teaching any of these things at the moment. You’re simply trying to keep your head above water; trying to bring some order to the chaos.

Enter the teacher’s aid. She claps her hands three times and suddenly the din dies down, the children clap back to her and take their assigned seats. She breaks them into groups. You and she each take a group and proceed to teach the children how to make new words with prefixes.   Later, as the first graders write about their field trip to a local nature center, the aid walks about and lays down the law in firm but kind tones, helps them with their sentences. You want to kiss this woman when she departs an hour later. More than that, you want to grab her around the ankles and beg her not to leave.

You get a grip on yourself and manage to teach the little people that twenty nickels = 100 cents, and that 100 cents = $1.00. You’re impressed with their ability to count to 100 by fives. Did you already know this in first grade? You don’t think so.

About the time the energy level of the six-year olds threatens to overwhelm you, it’s time to take them to the Phys. Ed. teacher. Though not religious, you thank God in heaven above for this reprieve. Please Lord, you pray, let them come back tired.

It just so happens you’re substituting on a Friday, and while the kids are in Phys. Ed, several bags of food are delivered to your room. These are “Cub Care” packets, according to notes from the teacher, and you are to put these in the backpacks of the same kids who were eating breakfast this morning. This will help ensure that these children will have some nourishment over the weekend.  You hadn’t really thought about that before, had you? Never really asked yourself, if they need food on weekdays, what happens over the weekend?

Now here you are, looking at these twenty very real little bodies, with real names—John, Malcolm, Isaac, Clarisse, Maya—their faces looking up at you because you are the adult. You are going to take care of them. Teach them. Help them make their way.

You start to get your act together and when you do, you begin to see the respect in their eyes. Before the day is over, they jockey to hold your hand on the way to recess. They spontaneously hug you at snack time. You’re starting to feel some of the rewards of teaching. But could you get up and do this every day? No way.

Are you glad that other men and women feel passion for this calling? Way.

Back in the Capitol, maybe you rethink a few things.

  • Teacher’s salaries. These kids are the future. And that future, in large part, is in the hands of the teachers. Shouldn’t they be paid like the future depends on it?
  • Teacher’s aids. Face it: you wouldn’t have made it to lunch without those aids. Don’t make cuts there!
  • School meal programs. Hungry people can’t learn. Period. And now that you’ve seen the faces behind the food, is this really where you want to cut the budget? Are you going to be the one who sends them home hungry?
  • Minimum wage. Most of their parents make minimum wage, if that.   Raise it, and maybe they could pay for three squares a day for their family. They’d rather do that, than get government assistance.
  • Phys. Ed programs. You will never again question their benefits.

You just spent the day with America’s future. You put a Band-Aid on its finger. You soothed its hurt feelings. You taught it our currency system. At the end of the day, it hugged you around the waist.

You taught a little person something; saw his eyes light up when he got it. It felt good, didn’t it? Spend just one day teaching a first grader. Then cast your vote.