“I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
These were Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final public words, given the day before he was assassinated (full text here). I’ve taken time on this special day to reflect on the power of MLK’s words.
Two years ago, to this day, was a special moment in my life. I was in Washington, D.C., about to witness the life-changing spectacle that was President Obama’s inauguration. But on this Monday, between inauguration festivities, I decided to participate in the MLK Day of Service. I ended up volunteering for an Asian-American community center in an immigrant-rich neighborhood. That day, I mentored a handful of students and offered them general guidance about college.
I have no grand illusions that I had changed anyone’s lives in those few hours. But I enjoyed helping these students–many of whom were “fresh-off-the-boat” immigrants and had limited experience speaking to current college students–in whatever tiny way possible. I had submitted my TFA application a couple weeks prior; this experience was a spark that eventually led me to join TFA (which I’ve previously described as “my best decision“).
1.5 years into my teaching commitment, I’ve learned so much, through teaching, about our nation. That is, though I have been teaching students, I have also been a student myself. I’ve learned about the power of education to change lives. More broadly, I’ve learned about how far we’ve progressed as a nation towards “the promised land” that MLK envisioned. But, perhaps most vividly, I’ve learned about how far we still have to go before we can be satisfied.
MLK’s final public words represented the passing of a torch. More precisely, the multiplication and distribution of torches. Ominously, on the eve of his assassination, he sensed that he would soon be no longer. And he needed to pass on leadership to others. Though MLK clearly was not alone in the fight, he was the symbolic voice. He’d “been to the mountaintop” before. Now, he was stepping aside, passing down responsibility. He wanted others to carry their own torches and ascend as well.
Almost 50 years on, people are still carrying MLK’s torch and pushing to, and beyond, the mountaintop. Despite his corporeal absence, MLK lives on in the spirits of Americans.
The following student essay–powerful in all senses–is the best evidence I’ve seen of this:
(Note: this student gave me full permission to share her complete piece with others and to post it on my blog. Still, as the essay does touch on some highly-personal topics, I’ve removed names and other identifying information. Besides this, the work is entirely her own.)
Something I overcame in my life was losing my best friend and becoming the mother of her child. I loved my best friend like she was my blood. But as they say you can’t always help somebody if they don’t want to be helped—and she was the type that you couldn’t tell anything to.I grew up with my best friend. So, she knew my family, I knew hers, and we knew everything about each other. We told each other everything. We were like each other’s diaries. We had so much in common: we both lost our fathers, we were both raped and, worst of all, both of our mothers were on crack. The difference was that I had a stable home and she didn’t. She was two years older than me but she never went to school; it wasn’t her fault though. She would always tell me, “I want to go to school.” I felt bad because she would ask me every day, “what did you do in school?” and “how was your day?”When I was in the 7th grade, she met this guy. I knew by the way he acted he wasn’t good for her, but she was never taught what qualities to look for in a guy. I tried to tell her that, but she didn’t listen. She was the kind of person whom you couldn’t tell anything. But I stuck by her side, through thick or thin, good or bad. She was my backbone; I did everything with her. It was hard trying to help her because he was telling her he loved her and all this other stuff. But she fell for it all and fell in love with him. This was probably because she never had a real male figure in her life, and this was her first boyfriend. In the midst of her being in love, sadly, her mother passed away. All she had left was me, my family, and her boyfriend.When she began living with me she started coming home, crying and saying that her so called “love of her life” was beating on her. At that point, I told her she had to let him go because it was only going to get worse. It did get worse. She started coming home with bruises on her. All I could do was cry. It got worse and worse but she would not leave him because he was her first love.When I was in the 8th grade she got pregnant by him. I hated her for that, but I had to stick by her side because I was all she had to depend on. He beat on her while she was pregnant. She tried to defend herself but she couldn’t, so I had to fight for her.She went into labor on August 23, [___] and had a baby boy. She let me name him. His name is [X Y Z]. On August 25, [___] she was discharged from the hospital. She decided she was going to stay with her baby’s father so I went over to their house every day, because I didn’t want her to be alone. On August 28, [___] they got into a big argument about who was going to change their baby’s diaper, so I changed it. By the time I was finished, he was choking her. And when I went to help her I found he had choked her to death. My heart stopped. I dropped on my knees. And all I could do was cry. I called the police and he left the house. I called my brothers to come get me. When they arrived, I still couldn’t believe this had happened to her.My mother said she was going to give the baby to an adoption agency but I told her no, I wanted to keep him. Keeping her baby was like keeping a part of her in my life. My mother let me keep [X]. I realized that having a child was a lot of responsibility and it was not an easy task, but I got through it with the help of my family and my ex-boyfriend.I over came this by being a good mother to her child and doing my best like she would’ve wanted me to do. Her memory lives on in [X].
This student has been to the mountaintop. A few credits away from graduating, she’s shown the resilience and perseverance that MLK showed. She’s one of many who continue to press onwards, in spite of the many obstacles that still exist today.
As a final point, I noticed, while editing this essay with her, how quickly she developed confidence in her writing skills. Honestly, the first draft was sloppy and clunky. She did not feel comfortable evaluating, and improving upon, her own writing. So, I had to guide her to notice areas with room for improvement:
- “What’s wrong with the way this paragraph is written here?”
- “I think you can use a better word than ‘dude’ to describe your friend’s boyfriend.”
- “Why might a reader find this sentence confusing?”
But by the end of an hour-long editing session–which included a couple of tear-filled emotional breaks–she had found her voice. And she was running with it, all on her own:
- “Do you think it’s better if I use a semicolon here?”
- “I put the dates in because what I’m trying to do here is show how quickly things went from good to terrible.”
- “This part definitely works, but I’m not sure about here–what do you think, Mr. K?”
As we finished our final editing phase, she ended with one last question–one that confirmed me to how empowered she now felt: “Mr. K, can you print out 2 copies of this for me?” Of course, I obliged. I told her I’d email her the file, too. Smiling, she took from the laserjet printer the slightly-curled papers, still warm, and pranced out of the classroom. “Have a good weekend, Mr. K!”