Teaching is a rewarding and noble profession. All good teachers believe they have a “calling” and I am no exception. I am “called” to work as an English as a Second Language teacher at Jewish Vocational Service of MetroWest in East Orange, N.J.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also had a calling: to end racism. In February, Black History Month, I reflect on how I convey King’s message to my students.
Just as he was trying to repair the world by demanding equal opportunity, I try to perform tikkun olam by sharing with new generations of Americans his vision of justice for all.
We discuss King’s famous dream. Has it been realized or is it a posthumous work in progress? Having this conversation with newly arrived immigrants and refugees whose English skills are often limited is no small feat. Having such a discussion during the Trump administration compounds the difficulty, given its controversial approach to the issue of immigration. But it is incumbent upon me to engage in this dialogue as I welcome the strangers in my classroom — who come from Haiti, Russia, Honduras, Mauritania, Columbia, Mexico and Brazil, among many other countries. After all, the Book of Exodus (22:20) tells us, “You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.
The culmination of our unit on America’s civil rights history is watching King deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. That is when the magic really begins, when his words transport us to that turning point in history.
I ask my students, “Who would like to stand in front of the class and deliver a passage from his speech?” They think the teacher has gone mad. I wait patiently. Some students lower their eyes and gaze at the text, afraid of catching my eye. Others consider the opportunity but sit quietly. Eventually, some brave soul volunteers.
Beatrice, from Haiti, is the first volunteer. Usually a quiet woman, as she recites the stirring words, Beatrice, with her French/Creole accent, is loud and forceful. I don’t recognize her; she has become Martin Luther King. I hug her for her courage and her passionate rendition. Beatrice’s daughter is also in the class. I ask her if she is proud of her mother, but Sandye does not understand the word “proud.” Remembering some French from high school, I ask if she is “fière” of her mother. She looks at Beatrice and her face lights up.
Next is Laura, a 42-year-old mother of four from Honduras. With a quiet dignity and speaking the words from her heart, she recites the same passage, but with a Spanish accent, conveying with force King’s magic.
Mackenson, another newcomer from Haiti, accepts the challenge. He works full-time on the night shift at McDonald’s for $10 an hour. With his wife still in Haiti, he also takes care of his 5-year-old son. One would think he would be too tired and preoccupied to volunteer. But here he is. He transforms our classroom of 18 students, in bitter cold New Jersey, into a march on our sweltering capital with 250,000 participants. We applaud Mackenson, as he fights racism and bigotry with King’s rhetoric.
Our Martin Luther King magic concludes as we rewrite parts of the “I Have a Dream” speech. Together, we change one word here, another word there, and create our own version. An excerpt reads as follows:
“I have a vision that tomorrow this country will stand up and practice the true meaning of its words, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’
“I have an idea that one time on the streets and in the factories of Arkansas the children of former slaves and the cousins of former masters will be able to eat and live together at the table of friendship ….
“I have a picture that sometime in my life even the state of Alabama, a state hot and angry with the hatred of discrimination and segregation, will be changed into a garden of equality and peace.
“I have a hope that my four young kids will in the future, live in a land where they will not be looked at by the color of their body, but by the inside of their heart.”
It may not have the familiar eloquence of the original speech but it is music to this ESL teacher’s ears. My students’ struggling with the English language, their grappling with our complicated American history and their understanding of equality in the year 2018 would make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “fière.”
Merrill Silver is an ESL teacher at JVS of MetroWest in East Orange, N.J. This essay first appeared in New Jersey Jewish News.