Are We There Yet: 'There's still work to do'
Fifty years ago is a long time when you’re 13.
Three generations. Half a century.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in August 1963, was another era for today’s middle-schoolers, a part of their history. They might not be able to quote it from memory, but they’ve studied the civil rights movement in school and they know the influential role King played.
Three African-American honors students at Edison Middle School offered their thoughts last week on what would have been King’s 85th birthday. All three eighth-graders — Waymond Jackson and twins Alayna and Ayanna Exum — believe King’s words are still relevant.
They are living out his ideals of equality. Their schools are integrated. They have friends and teachers of all races.
“If it wasn’t for him, different races wouldn’t be able to go to the same schools,” Alayna said. “I wouldn’t like being separated and just being with people who are my own color. When I get older, I’ll have to be around people of other colors. I think that’s good.”
They don’t see much overt racism in their everyday lives. But there are twinges.
Waymond remembers taking part in an academic program in elementary school that included several adult mentors, including one who essentially ignored him.
“I’d try to ask for help and he’d pass on by. I kept thinking, ‘Why doesn’t he like me?’ When I grew up, I kind of knew why. I understood,” he said.
These days he sees it in the jokes he hears occasionally at school — which aren’t really funny. A white student might ask a Hispanic friend, for instance, about “going over the border,” or an African-American student if he needs a pick for his “nappy hair.”
“With some people, they take the jokes too far,” Ayanna said.
“They think it’s funny, but it’s not,” her sister agreed. “Sometimes I get offended by it.”
This is middle school, of course. The students don’t remember hearing much of this before seventh grade, that pivotal year in the hormonal roller coaster of teenhood. Peer pressure is a factor, they said, and it doesn’t happen too often.
But it’s taken seriously by Associate Principal Tony Howard, who will nonetheless intervene only if needed. He tries to let students sort it out first.
“I could be reading it wrong. It could be a healthy, educational conversation about race,” he said.
If not, he’ll speak with the parties to find out more.
“Every student should have an opportunity to be themselves and be comfortable in the skin they’re presented with. I’m big on that,” he said.
The three students said they sometimes challenge the person making the joke, asking how they’d feel if the roles were reversed.
“It’s not like you can just stop everyone from saying what they want to say,” Ayanna said.
Once in a while, someone will tell Waymond, “Boy you’re dark.” And he’ll think, “Yeah, I’m dark, and you’re not.”
But he doesn’t say much in return unless it’s someone he knows well.
“It changes me as a person to call people names,” he said.
Even jokes among kids of the same race are off-limits in his book.
“People think, ‘You come from where I come from, so it’s OK,’ but it’s not,” he said. “It’s not a joke to play around with race.”
Waymond said King was a “peacemaker” and wanted races to work together.
Ayanna thinks parenting, and possibly social media, play a role. All three students said they were raised to treat everyone equally “because we’re all the same,” she said.
Said Waymond: “We’re all equal on the inside. We have the same organs. Why should that change on the outside just because we’re a different race?”
Like King, these youngsters have dreams. To go to college, to help family and community. All three are members of the College Bound student leadership group Howard started a few years ago.
Waymond wants to be an actor, and possibly a minister. Ayanna has dreams of being a choreographer or professional dancer, Alayna a detective.
They will also tell their kids not to let anyone bring them down and to fight for what they believe in.
“I want them to stand up and be proud of who they are,” Waymond said, “especially about their race.”
Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at (217) 351-5226, email@example.com or Twitter.com/jawurth.
Three things to know about ... College Bound:
— The College Bound group at Edison Middle School was started by Associate Principal Tony Howard (right) when he was first hired as a science teacher. It was initially designed as a mentoring program for a group of boys with disiciplinary issues, he said, but grew to include college-bound students of all races and genders.
— Its mission is to help students prepare for college and develop leadership abilities. The group has about 29 students who meet once or twice a week.
— Students must maintain a C average or better in their courses, exhibit leadership in school and in the community, maintain good citizenship, attend classes and complete all homework assignments. They also must complete one major community service project and attend an after-school activity.
Top: Twin sisters, Alayna Exum, far left, and Ayanna Exum join Waymond Jackson in making their way back to class at Edison Middle School on Jan. 15, 2014.
Bottom: Left to right, eighth-graders Alayna Exum, Waymond Jackson and Ayanna Exum at Edison Middle School in Champaign.
Heather Coit/The News-Gazette