Class, I started off, today’s precept is: “Don’t tell me the sky is the limit when there are no footprints on the moon”. I then waited as I always do after I read the precept. Their job is to talk about its meaning. There are no right or wrongs. Just conversation.
Madison who sits in the front and is often fumbling with her papers and trying to avoid lifting her voice first, spoke back almost immediately.
But Ms. Hurley, it’s all apart of God’s work!
Well, look at you getting all spiritual and philosophical! Explain please.
This lead to a conversation about where dreams come from and how connected we are to the universe.
At the end I asked them, so, is the sky the limit?
Well, yes. It is the responded.
Then we have to look past the moon when discussing our dreams in the fourth grade.
God bless their hearts. They come into the third grade innocent. Taking everything at face value.
I never answer that question, because I never thought I liked Charlie Brown. I just think it’s a good tool to use to teach third graders about race in America.
Before school starts, I use my Amazon points to purchase classroom items such as posters, stickers, door décor, awards, window stickers and a new grade book -all decorated with Peanuts characters.
There is a huge welcome poster that hangs above the cozy classroom library. It’s the first poster the children see when they walk in. It says welcome in huge red letters, and features every Charlie Brown character-except Franklin.
There is a poster at the front of the room that states “In a good conversation, one person talks while the other listens,” and there you see Charlie Brown in a good conversation…
There is a Snoopy poster. It has a yellow backdrop and it reminds the children how to be a perfect friend. Lucy has a poster. Linus has a poster. There are posters with the whole gang- except Franklin. As a matter of fact, I can count on one hand how many posters Franklin is in…
So I ask the children to create a poster for Franklin.
As the year goes by the children mature. The calendar at the front of the room finally has a picture of Franklin…
Around this time they are introduced to my Charlie Brown library.
I built the library by searching on eBay and Etsy for Charlie Brown memorabilia. I came across a set of old Charlie Brown books. They are so old the children have to ask special permission to read them and they MUST handle the books with care.
The ones who love to read try to keep them. Before they leave for the summer, I have to search their desks to make sure each one is returned.
During the year, I watch them silently read. It warms my heart to see them understand the humor from the Peanuts characters. Once they start to laugh and enjoy the content, I begin to ask them questions about the images and where they see themselves.
I then pull out the Charlie Brown dictionary- which always amazes them. (It amazed me too!) I add it to our classroom set of dictionaries. As time passes and they learn to define words and use them, I allow them to search the Charlie Brown dictionary.
As the year continues, the class grows older. The students are not new to third grade. They are fully third graders now.
Then one day, someone asks a question about identity – this always happens…someone is always curious about his or her self– and the class begins to argue and no one can come to a consensus. They turn to me and I turn to the dictionaries that they learned to trust and ask them if they ever looked up the words black or white. What do they think it means in a dictionary such as this one? I pull down the Charlie Brown dictionary.
The classroom is usually silent. Everyone thinking.
Then I flip the pages to white.
And read: White is the color of snow. Ducks have white feathers. The sheets on my bed are white. Marshmallows are white.
Next I turn the pages to black and read,
Franklin is Charlie Brown’s little black friend. He is talking to Charlie Brown on the telephone. Black is a color. Black is also another word for Negro, a person with dark skin. The words in this book are black.
The next thing that usually happens is a series of questions. Questions about what is in books and what images we accept without questions.
One year, the conversation happened after a trip to the New York Historical Society. The children were stunned to see a white educator – rather than a black one- teaching them about slavery in New York. They stood, uncertain, and couldn’t answer her questions. When we returned to the classroom, they expressed their discomfort with having a white educator telling them about their history.
Why did you feel uncomfortable? I asked.
Because, what was her ancestors doing when my ancestors were slaves? one little boy said quietly.
What do you think they were doing and why didn’t you ask her that?
A bossy girl at the front of the room replied, Because, that’s rude Ms. Hurley!
Why is that rude? Weren’t you uncomfortable? Was it okay for her to make you feel uncomfortable in your own skin? I’m not telling you to be rude. I am telling you to think. Think about your history and your stories and who is telling them and who will tell them if you don’t learn who you are.
Another year the conversation happened after singing the Black National Anthem. That was two years ago, when Trevor Noah and Roy Wood Jr. celebrated Franklin’s 50th year on the Daily Show. That was the same year the children learned the word stereotype.
Last year COVID happened right when the children started having the conversations. I thought, How can I introduce ‘race in America’ without the setting of the classroom? America quickly answered that question for me. Instead of discussing Franklin and Charlie Brown we cried about Floyd and Michael Brown, Jr.
Yearly, I attend book events. Especially children and young adult book events. One evening, I attended an event at the New School without doing my research. I just showed up to listen to the different authors and illustrators read from their stories.
I sat in the back and kept my eye on the time. It was a weekday and I had work the next morning.
That night Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell were given the National Book Award for Young People Literature.
That night, I was completely mesmerized by Joh Lewis’ speech. His voice coming over the podium was so strong. I’ve been to many book events but this one by far was the first one that brought me to a special place. The voice said church, family, country, past, present, future. In a way it even said me.. I sat upright and looked at the program again.
Is that John Lewis? The one who marched with King?
To sit in his presence at that moment in time was a gem.
When he finished speaking, the entire house stood up and clapped and clapped.
I didn’t even know he was sharing his story via graphic novels.
After the event, he stood around shaking hands and speaking to the book lovers. Everyone stood around outside talking in the autumn breeze. Of course, the man of the hour was John Lewis. Young people listened to him and revenced him.
Thank You, I said to him before he signed my book and then again afterwards.
I’m grateful God allowed me time and space to share my gratitude with the Civil Rights leader while he was alive. Even if all I could think of saying was, Thank You.
It a day set aside for Pratt’s graduate students to present their year long projects to the Pratt Community. It’s a fun time, a time to gather and meet. A time for discussions about community, preservation, gentrification. A time for futuristic thinking. Planning. Mapping. GISing.
A time to find out about what’s being built in the city and what’s being taken down. Who’s doing what and how are they doing it and where is the money coming from. Who got a scholarship and how was it possible and how can I sign up for next time.
It’s a time to be questioned by peers and professors about how you foresee your project coming into fruition.
This year It happened virtually.
Someone had the control to mute voices. Someone had the control to mute comments. Any type of talking meant timing and/ or texting.
This time, the Pratt Community spoke about Community trying to maintain what they knew as community.
As tradition has it, every first Monday of each month, my school would gather for assembly. We will lift our voices and sing the anthem.
This Monday we were muted. We listed to a muffled Dr. Roland Carter version.
We listened to our Principal tell us the virtue of the month, Resilience. Resilience.
And, just like that, Assembly was over.
When the question was asked, anyone have anything to say, the students unmuted their microphones and said hi. Cries of children saying hi as if they wouldn’t have an opportunity to be heard. Calling teacher names and saying they missed them.
This was the first assembly I cried. The first assembly I didn’t have to speak to any children nor lead them in a rendition of the Black National Anthem.
Another voice came. Assembly is over, please hang up.
No one moved. Everyone stayed. No one spoke. just stayed in the call. Until the call was dropped.