Reflection on MLK’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”

This year at Hanley Elementary a kindergartener was hit by a car while she was walking home from school. I still cringe at the thought of losing a student in the Hanley community. If I still cringe as a 27 year old teacher, then it must be just unbearable for her elementary schoolmates. Right?  Wrong. As horrible as that situation is, our students have long since learned to cope with such atrocious situations. People die way too soon in this neighborhood all the time. Many residents feel apathetic to death and violence like Ace in the classic hood movie “Paid In Full” after he got shot when he said, “[People] get shot everyday, b”. No big deal.” Well, as a teacher, I need that to be a big deal. It would be a big deal on the other side of town where the students have the opportunity to get a full education with far less distraction. With so much despair in the community, it is hard to see the forest for the trees. How can I hope to see significant progress in my students if they are dealing with life on such terms?

During this season of reflecting on Dr. King, I am in awe of his legacy as I review his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. He was addressing dire issues in our beloved Memphis. He was addressing the issues that our students’ families are still facing today: low pay and poor working conditions. However, the most powerful part of the speech comes at the end when he says:

“And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. 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. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not fearing anything, I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord.”

These words give me chills every time I read them or hear them. It’s almost as if Dr. King was certain that he would not make it much longer. We all know he was assassinated that night.

What I take from that part of the speech is that sometimes we won’t get to see the fruits of our labor, but that does not mean the work is not important! We are still dealing with civil rights issues today, 50 years after his assassination. But how things have changed! We still have a long way to go. In terms of education, African Americans were not allowed to learn to read. Even in Dr. King’s day, black students could not drink from the same fountains. If he was still alive today, he would see how impactful his influence was in Memphis and the entire country.

So back to my original question. How can I hope to see significant progress in my students if they are dealing with life on such terms? The answer is you can’t always. All we can do is plant the seed. You may not get to see what blossoms from your teaching much like Dr. King did not get to see the progress he inspired. But I trust and believe that if we work and teach as diligently as Dr. King fought for our rights, we will get to the Promised Land!!!
-Rhoda Smith, Class of 2016