Sometimes a mother gets a pleasant surprise when she sees her little one has grasped a big idea.
So it was the other day with my five-year-old.
Sam was sitting with his dad in the frozen yogurt shop when he suddenly started talking about a new topic, something different from the swordfighting and superheroes that often occupy his mind.
“A long time ago, people with light skin and people with dark skin couldn't play together,” he said. “Even if somebody with light skin lived next to somebody with dark skin, they couldn't have a sleepover. But Dr. Martin Luther King said that wasn't right. And now people with light skin and people with dark skin can be friends.
‘Even though Tom has light skin and I have dark skin, we can have a sleepover."
Tom is his pal next door. His family is white like my husband and me, while Sam has the brown skin of his birth country, Vietnam. Tom and Sam did, in fact, enjoy a sleepover recently (which ended suddenly at lights-out time, when Tom wailed, “I want my mommy!,” grabbed his little backpack and dashed back home.)
Sam learned about King last month at a children's "Birthday Party for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." thrown by NC MomsRising and other local parenting groups and sponsors at Northgate Mall. Kids gathered along tables to cut and glue crafts, dug forks into more than a dozen donated birthday cakes, and listened to a children’s book author talk about King.
A big crowd of parents and kids settled down on the floor to watch Paula Young Shelton, whose parents worked with King in the civil rights movement, perform her book about the man she knew as "Uncle Martin." Soon she had us all singing civil rights songs such as “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.”
It was an extraordinary crowd, filled with white, black, Hispanic and interracial families all crowding onto one square of floor. Sam enjoyed the people-watching, Shelton’s performance and of course, the birthday cake.
But what made the biggest impression on him was a one-on-one talk with Shelton, a first-grade teacher, in a quiet moment, about Dr. King.
“What did he do?” Sam asked.
Shelton was too savvy about kids to mention “the civil rights movement” or “segregation.” Bending down to Sam’s eye level, Shelton told him that long ago, in King’s day, little children with white skin and children with dark skin had to go to different schools.
“But Dr. Martin Luther King told people that was all wrong,” she said. “He said all kids should get to go to school together and play together.”
That stuck in Sam’s head. And for that I’m grateful. The volunteers from NC MomsRising put on a meaningful event when they threw that birthday party for Martin Luther King. They showed kids that some people can change the world. That’s a big deal.
Especially if there’s birthday cake involved.
Rah Bickley is a Durham mother of one and a member of NC MomsRising. MomsRising members write monthly for Go Ask Mom.