Matthew is 16 and lives in Overland Park.
He is the son of my partner Melissa and – even accounting for some bias – I’ve got to say he’s a very bright kid.
This past weekend, history buff Matthew was genuinely distressed by things he was hearing from classmates at Olathe East High, from teammates on his basketball team, from kids he knows around town.
“Most of the people I talk to, the only thing they know about Martin Luther King is that we get a day off school,” Matthew said. “If you asked them when he gave the famous speech in Washington, or when he was killed, or where, or anything…
“Well, no matter what you asked, they probably wouldn’t know. They know his name the way they know of somebody like Abraham Lincoln – that he did some really important things, good things. But what? Or when?
“Nobody would have a clue. The only kids who really understand American history are the ones who came here from other countries.
Yes, it is.
Matthew is right on the money when he suggests that it’s generally older citizens – and even then, mostly minorities – who truly recall exactly what role King played in changing this nation.
One high school cannot be considered representative of our state, let alone the entire country, but Matthew suspects (and so do I) that young people almost everywhere see little more than a surface view of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
And briefly, at that.
“To kids around my age, 50 years ago might as well be the Middle Ages,” Matthew said. “I mean, we don’t even have much knowledge of society before cell phones, let alone the middle of the 20th century.”
I don’t want to make Matthew sound like Mother Teresa or some latter-day “Freedom Rider,” but I’m pleased and proud that he’s socially aware – and willing to do more than talk about it.
He’s been in church or youth groups that help feed people who are going hungry, and he’d go hammer nails in a place like Haiti without a second thought.
So when he worries about how the legacy of MLK is being taught at his school and how little his peers understand, I’m pretty sure he’s darn close to accurate.
And the reason this family discussion seems so relevant is that attitudes in society right now, today, are being shaped by what our children learn.
Remember, this is a time when anger against immigrants is boiling right below the surface, and states like Arizona pass laws suggesting that to be darker-skinned is probable cause that you’re breaking the law.
I’m glad there are kids like Matthew who understand the danger – that if we don’t pick up the torch from pioneers like Martin Luther King and pass it on despite all obstacles, well…
We’re actually sliding backwards.
When times get tough, it’s human nature to blame someone else. And it’s a short hop from generic anger to pointing at blacks or Hispanics or Muslims.
Instead of a holiday to go to the mall, maybe MLK Day should include more comprehensive classes on what he did, and also discussions about diversity.
Forgetting is a frightening possibility.