SOUTH PORTLAND — The recent controversy surrounding the Martin Luther King Day observances reminded me of an occasion many years ago, before there was widespread acknowledgment of this day.

The school where I taught was among several in the area holding classes as usual, and when students found out, they hastily organized a “sit-in” in the gymnasium. The administration was flexible, and worked with the group to create an impromptu program.

A respected history teacher was asked to speak, and several student leaders added their perspective.

Dr. King’s moving “I Have a Dream” speech was read, and then, as now, I felt a lump in my throat as he referred to his young children being judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

At that time, there were few people of color in our small town, and the only blacks most of the students knew were those in the sports pages. It was crucial to recognize that the speech was not just about his children, but youngsters everywhere, of all backgrounds.

After the reading, students were able to understand this better. One girl commented that it was the first time she felt a sense of community with those of different backgrounds. It may not have been as scheduled, but there was learning taking place!

Those children are grown now, but some issues are still unresolved. Much of what Dr. King fought for has become law thanks to the civil rights movement of the early ’60s, another example of an era to likely to be misinterpreted without the input of eyewitnesses, but questions remain.

How to best honor the memory of this extraordinary man? No one would want to see his birthday become just another day off extending a winter weekend, but that possibility exists.

As a teacher, I always felt that open discussion was vital to learning, and still remember the sometimes surprising revelations that would result from dialogue.

One student, for example, shared that until I disclosed some of the pre-Title IX conditions that existed for women’s sports, he’d had no idea that there was any difference in the ways in which men and women were treated in that respect.

What I had experienced as a young woman was not at the level of discrimination suffered by minorities, but sharing my story helped to focus on the fact that much of our personal history is best understood when spoken by those who lived it. Tom Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation” is an excellent example of this.

As a child, I remember making cut-out tributes to Presidents Washington and Lincoln, hearing their stories again and again, giving these men who shaped our world the homage they deserved.

It probably helped that my father taught history, and made sure that my brother and I fully understood the influence these men had on our lives. He didn’t mask their frailties, but he spoke with great reverence of their achievements.

They were real to him, and thanks to his words, became real to us. Had Washington not had vision, he told us, he could have become a king, as some wanted him to do.

Imagine the difference that would have made! Lincoln fought to save the Union for all the people, because he believed in the precepts on which it was founded.

In a few short years, our nation witnessed the violent assassinations of three beloved leaders, and our generation had our own mournful history to share. I was so moved by their dreams that I became a VISTA volunteer, hoping to help create a world in which every child had the chance to fulfill his or her potential.

I became a teacher for the same reason, again hoping to give my students reason to believe in a brighter future.

Perhaps one point that seems obvious is the need for discussion, without rancor, about those who have contributed so much to our society. President Kennedy spoke of this in his inaugural address when he stated that “civility is not a sign of weakness.”

We may not agree on the issues, but we need to hear each other respectfully.

Our children, so desperately in need of positive role models, deserve no less. It’s their history we are safeguarding, and it is a priceless legacy. 

— Special to the Press Herald