Message isn't just for holiday
Seattle Times staff reporter
As a young girl growing up in the South in the 1950s, Brenda Jackson witnessed firsthand the effects of segregation and how leaders such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. worked to overcome it.
And for the past 30 years, she has spent her career as an educator finding ways to incorporate messages of peace, freedom, equality, justice and nonviolence into daily classroom lessons.
She thought those lessons would end last June, when she retired from the Kent School District.
But she just couldn't stay away. The call of the classroom was just too strong.
Last fall, she took a position at Seattle's African American Academy, where she continues to share her experiences with children.
"I'm dedicated to these scholars," Jackson said. "I feel like I owe it to these scholars to come back and tell them about yesterday and yesteryear and the struggles."
Inside her fourth-grade classroom at the Academy is a large portrait of King. Several other pictures of King are found on her desk and throughout the classroom. On her chalkboard are 13 books on King's life and civil rights that are available for her students to check out.
"The Dr. Martin Luther King holiday means a lot to me," she said. "I grew up in segregation, so when I'm talking to my scholars, I'm not talking about what I've read, I'm talking about my experience."
Some of those experiences include attending segregated schools in Georgia, where hand-me-down books from white students included messages of hate. She also recalled having to sit in the "colored" section at movie theaters and not being allowed to use the same entrances to buildings as whites.
But while attending all-black Fort Valley State University, she learned from professors who "taught us how to suck it up," and that peaceful approaches are the best ways to make changes.
"That's what I feel like I'm doing now," she said. "I'm passing on the torch to these scholars. I want to teach them to live in a world that they sometimes perceive as unfair. I have to give them the skills to be able to do that.
"When you choose fights and issues that are challenging, there's ways to address them. And that's when you bring in the Dr. King ideas and philosophies."
For example, at the beginning of the school year, when the Seattle School District was considering giving alternative schools' closest neighbors first preference in admissions, many students were concerned others from around the city would be shut out from attending the African American Academy, in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.
In response, she gave her students a lesson in peaceful solutions by asking them to write letters to the School Board explaining how they'd be affected.
"I try to teach them when you do things in a positive way, people will listen," Jackson said. "Even if they don't do what you say, they'll listen. But, if you're yelling and screaming, no one's going to listen to you, even if you're right."
On the playground, where students can be cruel to each other, Jackson explains to them that nonviolence is the best answer. Rather than fighting, students can tell a supervisor what happened, tell their classmate they don't like what they did, or just leave the situation.
"It doesn't mean you're a coward," she said. "It means you choose not to engage in that type of activity."
In addition, Jackson also integrates the life of King and his philosophies into core subjects.
At the beginning of each school year, she has students write autobiographies and read them to the class, so everyone will understand each other's background.
In history, students compare and contrast other world leaders to King. In geography, students explain how cities such as Atlanta, Memphis and Montgomery and Selma, Ala., were significant in King's life. And in vocabulary, students define freedom, segregation, civil rights and Jim Crow.
When constructing time lines, Jackson has students chronicle major events in King's life and then asks students to envision a time line for themselves, with what they'd like to accomplish in the future.
"I try to teach scholars you have to have a road map," she said. "Positive or negative, you're going to leave some kind of legacy. I also tell them there's going to be other things on their road map they didn't put there, but if you live a certain kind of life, they'll be positive things."
Student Tedarrius Brady said learning King's philosophies from Jackson has had an impact on him. He said he now tries to practice peaceful ways and talk things out. He's also gained a greater respect for those who came before him.
"The most important thing is to remember others marched for us and we should respect that," he said.
Parent Molly Sanders said she values Jackson's teaching style and messages for her daughter Latreya.
"She puts a different swing on things. When there's conflicts, she asks the children to put themselves in the other situation, and she teaches them to respect each other, understand differences and how to handle situations," Sanders said.
Jackson feels teaching King's beliefs has had a positive impact on her students over the years.
"I try to be an example," she said. "Scholars won't always remember what reading or math group they were in, but they'll always remember that one special teacher who taught them to stand up for what they believe in and do things the right way. I want to leave that kind of legacy."
J.J. Jensen: 206-464-2386 or firstname.lastname@example.org.