cover of Martin's Big WordsOrganized by the San Francisco Education Fund to coordinate with Black History Month, today was the African American Read-In. Volunteers fanned out across the City this morning to read or share works by and/or about African American artists, writers, leaders and musicians. I was one of those volunteers. But as with many endeavors of this type, I found once again, it’s the “teachers” who end up learning.

The first lesson occurred before the event when I showed up for my training. I’d already prepared by picking out some of my favorite Langston Hughes poems for my planned reading. Only to find that we were only reading to elementary school kids, not the Middle Schoolers I thought I’d be sent to. Yep. It was right there on the website and in all the material I’d been sent.

So Lesson #1: If you are going to read to children, best to polish up your own reading comprehension and retention skills.

With a little more than a day to source and learn a book for Friday’s Read-In, I was pleased to see that a suggested book list had been assembled. It was a wonderful list, compiled by the owners of Marcus Books, a legendary bookstore dedicated to books by African American authors. Over the past 50 years, this set of family-owned bookstores has hosted as customers and authors just about anyone who was anyone in African American literature and leadership — including Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, Terry McMillan, Toni Morrison, Walter Mosley, Ishmael Reed and Muhammad Ali. To put it in White People terms, this is the African American City Lights or Shakespeare and Company. Even the building is historic, housing as it once did — back when San Francisco’s Fillmore District was known as “The Harlem of the West” — Jimbo’s Bop City, a famous after-hours club where jazz artists such as John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Art Tatum would come to jam or just hang out. The extraordinary family who founded Marcus Books and still run it can answer any questions about African American literature. They also have a Smooth Dachs Terrier on guard duty, so you know these are good people.

Lesson #2: After more than 25 years in this city, I can still find great new things about it.

Marcus Books, San Francisco

When I was there, Marcus Books featured old episodes of Soul Train on the big screen. I browsed to Billy Preston, Sly Stone and War. Nice touch!

The book I chose, since I would be reading to third and fourth graders, was Martin’s Big Words — a child’s history of Martin Luther King Jr. which is beautifully illustrated by an African American artist. We’d been warned in training that we should expect to meet a tough crowd and be prepared to answer all sorts of questions. Good advice. I called up my friend Google and boned up on things I thought I’d be asked. Questions such as “What is Black History Month and why do we have it”, plus as much as I could find about MLK, just in case the story prompted a lot of questions not in the book. It wasn’t enough. Kids can get right to the tough questions then never let up. A sample:

Kids: “Who killed Martin Luther King?”

Me: “A man named James Earle Ray. He was very prejudiced and he hated what Martin was saying.”

Kids: “Why?”

Me: “I’m not sure we know. But he was very filled with hate.”

Kids: “Why didn’t people tell him not to hate?”

Me: “That’s what Martin Luther King was trying to say, ‘Don’t hate’. But James Earle Ray didn’t want to hear that. He had no Black friends, so he wasn’t used to listening to what all kinds of people say.”

Kids: “Why didn’t his teachers make him play with Black kids?”

Me: “Because when Ray was a kid, Black kids weren’t allowed to go to his school. It was the law.”

Kids: “That’s stupid. Why was there a stupid law?”

Me: “Laws aren’t always perfect because people aren’t always perfect. That’s why we try to change laws all the time to get rid of stupid laws.”

Kids: “What stupid laws do we have now?”

Me: “Uh, I think your teacher can help you with that one…”

Kids: “So YOU don’t know the answer.”

Lesson #3: Presidential debates should be run by Third Graders. They ask the tough questions and they allow no wiggle room.

Things didn’t go any smoother in my next class. Anticipating that the kids might not know a lot about Martin Luther King or might not understand the full context of the times, I brought some scans of old news photos of the Civil Rights struggle. I also brought pictures of Ruby Bridges and the famous Norman Rockwell painting inspired by her. But first, when I found that several kids thought Martin Luther King freed the slaves, I tried to give them an easy to grasp timeframe:

Me: “History isn’t just a long time ago. History happens every day. And Martin Luther King’s work wasn’t that long ago. When I was your age, I heard Martin Luther King speak and I’m not that old.”

Kids: “So how old are you?”

Me: “Not that old.”

Kids: “So how old?”

Teacher: “That’s not polite to ask that question.”

Me: “Well, I brought it up so I’ll tell you, I’m….”

Stunned silence

Me (desperately): “So I’m not that old.”

One little girl clearly took pity on me: “Don’t feel bad. You aren’t old until you are 80.”

Lesson #4: You can’t impress Third Graders. But they will sometimes cut you some slack.

Norman Rockwell painting, The Problem We All Live With

The kids were fascinated with the additional photos I brought in, including this Norman Rockwell painting of Ruby Bridges.

The pictures were a much bigger hit. I warned the kids that I was going to show them some pictures of Martin Luther King, but also some scary pictures and we could talk about it. The Rockwell painting of Ruby Bridges sparked the most conversation as the kids tried to determine if the red stain on the back of the wall was blood. Then they poured over photos of peaceful protesters being shot at with fire hoses, clubbed and set upon by police dogs. They were concerned, but annoyed that I’d set them up for something really gross and not delivered.

Kids: “These aren’t scary.”

Me: “Well, they are upsetting. What if you were being very peaceful and protesting a bad law and someone made a dog bite you.”

Kids: “Did the dogs rip anyone’s arm off?”

Me: “No but they hurt people.”

Kids: “Well, it’s not scary. You said it was scary and it’s not.”

Lesson #5: See Lesson #4 about kids cutting you some slack. Forget that.

So that was my day at the Read-In. Or as Gov. Chris Christie would no doubt spin it: “A day of foisting a Leftist Liberal agenda on impressionable school children.” You remember when Chris Christie said states should just vote on civil rights for Gay people, which he said would have been a better idea than the Civil Rights movement which caused “blood in the streets.”

I know some Third Graders who might think blood is sometimes a good thing in a struggle. At least if it’s promised to them.