I remember vividly when Martin Luther King Jr.was assassinated. It was the spring of my freshman year at Western Michigan University. I was finishing up my student teaching.
I'd been accepted into an alternative pilot program designed to train future teachers to work in inner-city schools. To begin, the professors needed a certain number of students. I was young and idealistic (I'm still idealistic), and convinced the program director to include me.
My second semester I taught mornings at Lincoln Elementary on the north side of Kalamazoo. I had 22 students and 21 of them were black. I took education courses in the afternoon. The student teaching was a priceless experience for a budding poet who grew up in rural Michigan during the 1950s and '60s.
The morning after Martin Luther King died, I noticed some college residents had hung a huge Confederate flag in their dorm room window. That was the first time I saw the stars and bars through black eyes.
Growing up, I thought the Confederate flag was a cool symbol of questioning authority and rebellion. I hadn't been taught to know any better. On April 5, 1968, I had a vision of it as the cloth of a mindset I wanted no part of. The university made the students take the flag down.
After King was murdered, it became dangerous for me just driving to school. But I had 22 new first-grade friends who were teaching me more than I ever taught them. My students helped me change into a better person.
Martin Luther King's dream still marches on. In tribute, here are three elders' poems I wrote.
To create this genre of poetry, we invite community elders into schools. I teach students interviewing techniques, and how to write free verse poetry using the elders' own recorded words. Then I write around the students' works. The process is a blending of literature and folk history.
Marjorie Bachi Paradis
When Martin Luther King was killed
I wrote to his wife
and told her how sorry I was.
I had lost my husband
not too long before.
My children were without a father.
I knew a little bit
what she was going through,
except my husband died naturally.
I got a nice letter back from her,
a personal one,
not a form letter.
Coretta thanked me
for letting her know
were going through the same thing.
She told me she'd be all right.
I kept her letter in a box for years.
It got kind of moldy smelling.
I thought, "I'll never need that."
So I tossed it.
I threw it away just before she died.
Don't know why I did that.
I could kick myself.
Prior to World War II,
we lived in a trailer park
There's a dividing line
between Detroit and Grosse Pointe;Alter Road.
We lived just inside that line
along the river.
A Jewish family moved in.
I was dumbfounded with the hatred
among my playmates
towards that family.
There was no physical violence,
Racism hasn't gone away.
When I encounter bigotry or prejudice
I make a point
to let the person know
I don't agree.
It's a small thing.
I can't let people think
I go along with that
kind of thinking.
A lot of people have lost track
of respect for each other,
or maybe never had track of it.
The examples of man's inhumanity
my generation has lived through
breaks your heart.
When we moved here in 1949
Saginaw was a segregated city
and still is.
There was a veterans' benefit program,
but my husband wasn't accepted
because of our race.
There was one school hiring black teachers.
I can't remember when integrated education
started to branch out.
The west side was the elite side,
and the east was the down side.
The river divides.
In one sense today is better,
but some of those racist feelings
are going under the surface.
To tell you the problem
would take more than this interview
and a poem.
My last nine years
I was the principal at South Intermediate,
a west side school.
Poet Bard Terry Wooten has been performing and conducting writing workshops in schools for 29 years. He is also the creator of Stone Circle, a triple ring of boulders featuring poetry, storytelling and music on his property north of Elk Rapids. Learn more at www.terry-wooten.com.