Rights Must Be Fought and Cared For

Quite a bit of adolescent hand-wringing starts to snake through the room after a couple of minutes.  Kids look at me puzzled, but I pay them no mind.  I’m in full test-proctor-mode.

“But Mr. Bowen, this question makes no sense.”  I shrug.  And so, the anxiety builds.  Another chimes in.

“But it says to put a line AROUND the correct answer.”  I carefully read it over her shoulder.

“Yes, it does,” I nod.

“But that’s not possible.”  I look at her, confused.  She feels the need to set me straight.  “A line is straight.  A circle goes around.  It can’t be both.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.  It’s a state assessment.  I’m not allowed.”  The stress has taken hold of another one.  We seem to be done with raising our hands at this point.

“But all the questions are weird.  We’re going to fail.”  The room breaks into pleading nods.  Their uncertainty over this assessment doesn’t surprise me.  What really surprises me is how painfully easy it is to repeatedly con the same group of twelve-year-old’s again and again.

“What does this stupid test even prove anyway?”

“It is supposed to prove if you’re educated enough to vote.”  And the confusion mounts.

“But I’m twelve.  I can’t vote.”

“Why would they test us so early?  Won’t we be smarter by the time we’re allowed to vote?”

“Will we be tested every year for this?”  Finally, a voice breaks through.

“Isn’t it illegal to like test people to vote?”  And that’s my cue.

“It is now.  It wasn’t then.”  A few are coming around, but not all.

“Wait so this test is illegal?  Are we in trouble?”  A few laugh.

“I really do find it sad that I can scam you guys over and over and over.”

“So, this is not some official state assessment?”

“My goodness people!  Didn’t anyone become suspicious when they noticed my poor, crooked, cut and paste job?”  All the tension seems to ease.  I pause.

“But it WAS.”

“For kids?”

“No.  For adults.  This was the test you had to pass in order to vote in Louisiana.”

“What are the right answers?”   A few ask.  I just stare and pause.  It all sort of hangs in the air waiting to be unraveled.  Lightbulbs start to flicker.

“So, there were no right answers, then?”

“Exactly.”

“Then the people in charge of the test got to decide who voted and who didn’t.”

“After a while, some people just stopped showing up.  No point.”  You can feel their preteen angst and moral outrage.  “Monday is Martin Luther King Day.  Sure, it’s a day off.  But Dr. King was more than just a guy that gave some great speeches.  Dr. King fought tirelessly for real causes for real people.  And voting rights, this very thing, was one of them.  On Monday, when you are playing twelve straight hours of video games, think about this.  Think about Dr. King.”  And I really hope they do.  It sometimes feels that making something or someone a holiday is the surest way to have them forgotten.  It’s now some past event, lacking in relevance.  The holiday feels like a retirement of the cause and none of us can afford that.

As for my seventh graders, I feel the need to go a little deeper.  The moments when you have their undivided attention are priceless, so I make the most of them.  All in.

“But don’t forget.  Rights don’t stay Rights all on their own.”  We read an article pertaining to voter suppression that paints a shameful narrative and it follows that timeline right up to the present.

“This is almost as bad as the test,” someone muses.

“Nothing is ever over,” I say.  “Ever.  There will always be the need for the next Dr. King.”  I point to a small boy in the front.  “Are you the next Dr. King?”  I point to a young girl in the back.  “Are you the next Rosa Parks?”  A young man who struggles in school keeps his eyes on me, almost pleading for me to point him out next.”  Are you the next Cesar Chavez?”  He nods, and at that moment I believe him.  “Rights don’t stay Rights all on their own and nothing is ever completely over.”

Thomas Jefferson understood the value of education.  I worry sometimes that our current education is too focused on marketable skills and has forgotten our democracy, our voice, and our duty.  Jefferson believed that, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”  I am no Thomas Jefferson.  Obviously.  Most of us aren’t.  But, I get it.  I fully understand the due diligence a living, breathing democracy requires.  As I age and grab hold of a few strands of wisdom, I have come to truly appreciate that Rights don’t stay Rights all on their own, it ain’t over, and the next Dr. King is sitting in someone’s classroom somewhere.  And I promise, I will do my very best to point him or her in the right direction just in case they are sitting in mine.


For more inspiring classroom stories, please check out Mr. Bowen’s recent bestseller, Our Kids: Building Relationships in the Classroom.

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