Marci McPhee is on a year-long leave of absence from Brandeis University, where she is volunteering as an English teacher at Kwajalein Atoll High School, on an island called Guegeegue (pronounced goo-jee-goo) in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. In July 2010 she will resume her position as associate director of the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life at Brandeis, where she oversees the Sorensen Fellowship and on-campus events.
She recently reflected on the challenges of implementing studies of Martin Luther King into her curriculum. Naturally, one has to take into account cultural relativism. To read her previous contributions, please refer the blogs: ”Ribelle teacher learns about sharing“ and “On my porch.”
Students watching a video biography of Martin Luther King. Notice the face of King on my computer giving his stirring “I Have a Dream” speech, while the students watch the projector screen. (Yes, we have easy access to the school’s laptop and computer projector, but we’ve been without a functioning copy machine for days, without a functioning printer for weeks, without internet access for months, and without a useable student bathroom for longer than that (that’s what the ocean is for). One of the many paradoxes of teaching in the Marshall Islands.)
It’s one thing to support Brandeis college students to come up with great activities to celebrate Martin Luther King Day, as I have done in the past. I’ve been inspired by Brandeis students’ creativity and passion for all that King stood for.
It’s quite another thing to teach about Martin Luther King to Marshallese high school students who are coming to understand his story for the first time, even if they might have heard of him before.
MLK is not in the curriculum, but I’m getting used to making up my own materials here. We spend the week studying new vocabulary words: “slavery,” “segregation,” “discrimination,” “justice,” and “nonviolence.” With no corresponding chapter in Marshallese history, students have a tough time understanding the two worlds in the American South in MLK’s time. One world for whites and one for blacks, intersecting at hot flashpoints, divided by centuries of bloody, shameful oppression and prejudice.
I write a skit to help them understand. We stage a nonviolent protest in the front of my class. A beautiful Marshallese-brown Martin Luther King (who happens to be a girl, even) sits at a lunch counter and won’t budge until she gets her hamburger and cola. The class laughs while other student actors haul her away to jail. I watch one of the boy’s eyes widen as he begins to get it.
“Ms. Marci, if we were there then, would we be treated like that too?”
“Yes, I’m sad to say. The whites called them ‘black,’ but what they really meant was ‘non-white.’”
“What about him?” The student points to the lightest-skinned boy in the class, whose skin could pass for a beach tan.
“Yes, even him. Some people said ‘one drop of black blood makes you black.’”
I watch the ripples of understanding – terrible understanding – go through the class, punctuated by the slap of the ocean waves hitting the shore outside my window. Another hand goes up.
“Ms. Marci, if Martin Luther King hadn’t done that, would . . . ” I see him struggling to finish his sentence, and I try to help by guessing what he’s thinking. “Would Obama be president? Not likely,” I say.
“No . . . would. . . would you have come here?” he asks simply.
“Oh yes. Of course I would. It would take more than discrimination and segregation laws to keep me from being here with you. And if anyone tried to stop me, we’d all go to jail together!”
One girl says, “I know a song about that.” She starts singing. Other students join her. I add my voice, and thirty-six voices in a high school classroom in Kwajalein Atoll sing together:
Heal the world. Make it a better place
For you and for me and the entire human race.
There are people dying. If you care enough for the living,
Make a better place for you and for me.
Excerpts from student essays:
“Martin Luther King taught me about kindness and being good to people even if they’re not from the same island. It was interesting about those people (blacks & whites) not sharing anything.”
“I think he was afraid of troubles.” (a student responding to MLK’s nonviolent tactics)
“To fight for something isn’t easy. He didn’t care if they kill him but he just wanted his children to live in a better place where there is no fighting when they grow up. Hurting people isn’t a way to have a better world.”
“You breathe, I breathe, so what’s the difference? ‘Beneath the skin is all the same.’” (a quote from The Cay, my 11th grade class textbook)
“Martin Luther King is the highest great of dream.”