The MLK Memorial and Me

In February, I went to a conference in D.C. My wife came down to join me since I hadn’t been there before (update: wait, I have been there before, once as a young ‘un long ago, and another time for a brief few hours for a meeting. Forgive me, I have a really bad memory!), and we wanted to take the opportunity to explore. We don’t get out much, and I’ve barely seen much of my East Coast environs, barring last year’s visit to Philly. At the top of our list of things to see was the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial. It was the newest memorial, and also slightly controversial.

As we approached the memorial, we read quotations from MLK’s speeches that are engraved along a wall that leads up to his statue. We then walked around the central monument, which depicts Martin Luther King with his arms crossed, embedded in a chunk of granite mountain that appears to have slid forward from its face (“Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope”). His hands are sinewy and strong, veins bulging, and his eyes gaze stoically across the water. There is a sense of calm and might, but also a sense of tragedy. The somewhat unfinished look of the overall work contributes to this sense.

We took our obligatory picture of his statue, and then my wife asked if I could take her picture in front of one of the quotations we had passed earlier along the wall. “It reminds me of you,” she said, somewhat shyly. We walked back over and I took her picture in front of the quotation, which read

“I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their heads.”

I asked her why it made her think of me. She seemed to feel that the reason why I am a teacher and work hard every day aligned with that quotation. I couldn’t quite see myself in it, however, and told her so. I realized I seemed brusque, but I couldn’t think of a reason at that moment to explain why. This post is my explanation.

A little further down the wall, I saw another quotation that did speak to me and about what I am passionately committed to in my work everyday:

“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalty must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”

I took a picture of this one as well. We then walked away from the MLK memorial towards the Roosevelt memorial, which is a long, meandering wall and pathway of red stone with many niches and spaces for reflection along the way. Quotations from F.D.R. are sprinkled next to reflective pools, waterfalls, and scattered stones. But it was a quote from his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, in a little niche that reached out to me. In fact, it linked together in theme with the earlier quotation from MLK that had spoken to me:

“The structure of world peace can not be the work of one man, or one party, or one nation . . . It must be a peace that rests on the cooperative effort of the whole world.”

This theme of common purpose, of a struggle for a global, overarching vision through cooperative effort, is what drives me and motivates me to do the work that I do. I was flattered by my wife’s belief that I do what I do because of a passion for human rights, but when I read the quotation she linked to me, there was a cognitive dissonance I didn’t feel comfortable with. I can’t quite place my finger on it, but it seems to have to do with a sense of martyrdom (“I have the audacity to believe. . .”), a stance of personal virtue, nobility, and challenge, that I can’t quite identify with.

An almost messianic passion, in fact, is a trait of many that enter into teaching as a profession. It is common for teachers to speak of teaching as a sort of “calling,” as if they have been drawn into the vocation by some higher purpose. I am frequently talked to by others who are not teachers as if I have entered into a sainthood, and given the respect and sympathy attributed to a monk — that is, with an incredulous, I-would-never-do-that-myself-but-god-bless-you kind of attitude.

This has always rubbed me the wrong way. Teaching is a profession. It is a job. And yes, it is a tough one, and it is especially tough when teaching special education in a high needs school in an impoverished inner city area. But I went into this tough career not simply because I wanted to make my world a better place, but because I wanted — purely selfishly — to develop myself as a leader, to learn firsthand the ground level effects of policy decisions, and become a part of something much greater than myself. I have no illusions that I am changing the world simply because I may impact a few childrens’ lives in the confines of one classroom. This is important work and the impact on one child’s life cannot be diminished. But I believe strongly that the system within which I work impacts our nation’s future greatly, and that I can learn how to work together with others to change the world by altering components of the system we work and live within. Teachers, parents, children, policymakers, state legislatures, mayors, citizens, these are the people that collectively will change the world. We must learn to look beyond our individual selves and work towards a common, global purpose.

This is why the second quotation from MLK and Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotation spoke to me. I’d like to think that I as an individual can effect great change, but realistically speaking, I know that whatever impact I can have on my own is nothing in comparison to what we can achieve when we work together.