Traverse City Record-Eagle

Life

January 20, 2013

Terry Wooten: Learning from others about MLK

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.

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