By Guest Blogger Kelly Nichols

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

A couple of weeks ago after reading a section of the novel Firegirl, one boy came to me and said, “I don’t get why Tom makes such a big deal about Courtney. The author never mentions anything about her being kind or generous.” I had to stop and think. The author made it clear that Courtney was “beautiful” and that Tom daydreamed about her. But my student was genuinely confused about the character’s interest. I smiled as I realized it is beginning to sink in. That the important stuff is on the inside.

I confess that in addition to a solid academic background, I want students to leave my room with the intangibles; integrity, perseverance, generosity, kindness, the willingness to work hard, and a heart for others. While I know modeling these qualities is a great start, it is not sufficient. When I choose novels to read that do not end in a pretty bow, I have noticed students are more perceptive than we give them credit. The student who questioned Tom’s crush wanted to see the qualities of the character rather than her appearance.

While reading Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, a child came to me and we had this conversation. Student: “I know why you wanted me to read this book.”

Me: “Why?”
Student: “Because I am just like Joey.”
Me: “Don’t you think we all have a little of Joey in us?”

This acknowledgement of his connection led us into a discussion of how people are never all good or all bad, we are complicated and we make mistakes. I smiled proudly when I heard him return to his table and repeat parts of our conversation. Almost magically, others joined in and added to the conversation. I was proud to see students discussing real life; sparked by an observation.

Discussing the book Chrysanthemum where a vivacious girl goes to kindergarten, students noticed her spirit was broken by others. The obvious lesson was that words can hurt others. This group of students chatted further to speculate why the students were so mean. In the end, the decision was that their meanness came from some type of pain. Pride washed over me as these students were able to see that pain can manifest itself in different ways. Empathy. Even for the “bad guys.” Wow.

A wordless video, Scarlett, about a young girl with a seemingly impossible dream taught us about resilience. We saw how even the smallest bit of hope can shine a light into the darkness. Students saw this as a call to spread hope and kindness with those who need it.

At times our world overwhelms me, I long to see the beauty which can be hidden amidst the pain. But when I focus on my classroom, Room 406, I see grace everywhere. I have expectation for a better tomorrow. Empathy exists. Neighbor helps neighbor. Kind words are spoken. I am not claiming Nirvana, but I know there is good.

As we remember Dr. King, I wonder what he would think. Would he see advancements? Would he be pleased? In 1963, Dr, King desired that his “four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”. Me too, Dr. King. We are not there yet but, with a few glimpses of genuine empathy from our children, I believe Dr. King would find hope and promise.