“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
Force Elementary School stood four blocks from our home on the working class side of Denver. It was a big, red brick rectangle with a flag pole in front and a blacktop out back. This is where all the action happened: tetherball, tag, four square. In one hotly contested hopscotch battle, I watched Haskell, my troubled big kid neighbor, leap the length of the hopscotch court and land gracefully on one foot, then scoop up the ID chain he was using as a marker. Years ago I heard that Haskell eventually hopscotched all the way to prison, but that may just be a rumor. Even as an elementary schooler Hack was labeled as a troublemaker.
No black families lived in my neighborhood, but one black kid attended first grade with me. I remember him as Rodney not because that was his name, though it may have been, but because my six year-old brain stored him away as Rodney Allen Rippy’s twin. The diminutive Jack in the Box pitchman was the only other black child I knew by name, not including the characters on Fat Albert. Other black children appeared on television, but with exception to the son on Julia black first graders were relegated to diversity roles on shows like Sesame Street and The Electric Company. Your memory of 1973 is likely different, but four blocks from Force Elementary on the working class side of Denver these are the snippets that my little brain chose to save.
Rodney the First Grader was my class’s sole representative of his entire race. That’s a big load to carry, but Rodney didn’t seem to notice. He sat cross-legged with the rest of us while pretty Mrs. Hendrickson read us stories, occasionally ate his paste, and ran around the blacktop just like the rest of us. He was just another kid. The Rodneys—both the real one and the Jack in the Box kid—did not map to the templates of black people laid out by the adults in my world. They weren’t stupid, lazy, or dangerous. Neither Rodney was uppity, whatever that word meant, nor were they troublemakers. This last epithet, “troublemakers,” was uttered often by the grown-ups, as in “those troublemakers just can’t leave well enough alone,” or “he was a troublemaker. He got what he deserved.”
Haskell was labeled a troublemaker, too, and the adults always seemed to think that he got what he deserved. Hack got into a fight just after his appendix surgery and popped his stitches: he deserved it. He wiped out riding his Stingray no-handed: He deserved it. Troublemakers always deserved it.
During story time one morning, Mrs. Hendrickson pulled a book from her purse. She held up the blue tinted photograph on its cover and said, “Does anyone know who this is?”
We stared blankly.
“That guy on Fat Albert that isn’t a cartoon?”
“No, but that’s a good guess,” Mrs. Hendrickson said. “This is Martin Luther King. Does anyone know why he’s so special?”
I raised my hand. “Because he was a troublemaker,” I said.
“Not really,” she said. “But that’s what somebody always says about people who want to change things.” Mrs. Hendrickson opened the book and began to read: Birmingham, Selma, the March on Washington, all told in bites small enough for a six-year-old’s ears. She turned the book and panned it along the semicircle seated in front of her, each of us soaking in the illustrations. She read bits of speeches and told stories from the old days of the Civil Rights Movement, stories not even a decade old at that time. She told Rodney he had Dr. King to thank for getting him to Force Elementary.
“I ride the bus,” Rodney said.
“Does he live here?” a little girl asked.
Mrs. Hendrickson’s eyes watered. “No,” she said. “He’s not with us anymore.”
“Where did he go?”
“Well, a man who thought he was a troublemaker killed him.”
“Dr. King wanted to make the world better for everybody, and that scares some people,” Mrs. Hendrickson said.
Of all the things I learned during the first grade, no lesson has resonated so strongly for so long. After that day I questioned the grown-ups pronouncements that so-and-so was a troublemaker. Haskell sneaked his dad’s cigarettes and broke into the neighbor’s house just to look around. I got why he was a troublemaker.
But what about Muhammad Ali refusing to go to Vietnam? Was that the same thing as Haskell, or was the champ trying to make the world a better place? What about the hippies that the grown-ups hated, with their talk of love, peace, and ecology? What about the ladies on television who demanded equal rights? There were good troublemakers in the world and bad troublemakers.
Forty years ago the idea of a Martin Luther King Day never would have occurred to me. I wouldn’t have believed that my life would be enriched by so much diversity, either. A black president? That was entirely unimaginable.
The world needs trouble, but the good kind of trouble: shake things up trouble; don’t poison my drinking water trouble; treat all people with respect and dignity trouble; stand up for those who can’t trouble.
Sometimes I wonder what I’d be like if Dr. King didn’t teach me that lesson in the first grade. Would I buy into the culture of fear? Would I be more apt to defend the status quo? I’ll never know, because he wasn’t afraid to make that great hopscotch leap that changed the world for the better.