When Teaching Means Changing Lives

My friend Joe Ross is a gifted poet and a life-changing teacher. This month he’s dedicating his blog posts to Martin Luther King in the lead up to the MLK holiday on January 19. I asked Joe if I could send him my remembrance of one particular student affected by King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Treat yourself and read all of Joe’s inspiring posts at JOSEPHROSS.NET

Teaching Martin Luther King Means Changing the World – a Guest Post by Caron Martinez

This is the fourth in a series reflecting on Martin Luther King, Jr. This post was written by Caron Martinez, a professor in the College Writing Program at American University in Washington, D.C. It was due to her encouragement that I developed and taught a writing course using three of Dr. King’s books. I’m grateful she contributed this essay to the series.

A wiry, dark-eyed, disorganized young man who was taking College Writing again after failing it in a previous semester, Mehdi from Pakistan was only half-in for the first six weeks of class. He would come to office hours after missing class with a range of excuses for his late work, from visa problems, to undiagnosed mental health issues, to food poisoning from bad sushi. Though he extolled my virtues as a teacher, had a ready smile, and claimed to know how important it was “to write well for college,” he seemed distracted and unengaged. I doubted he’d pass, if only because his attendance was so sporadic, and his writing assignments barely adequate.

Mehdi came for a mid-term conference and we sketched out an attendance and writing plan that he swore to adhere to. At that meeting, Mehdi shared his deep despair about his home country. 2010 was a year marked by violence and unrest in Pakistan. Too many stories of suicide bombings in marketplaces and mosques that would kill 50 to 100 civilians routinely; of a cyclone that struck, leaving mass flooding in its wake, of a cholera epidemic that broke out and killed thousands. But aside from the natural disasters, Mehdi was especially troubled by the depth of government corruption grounded in greed and self-interest: he told of feuds that political leaders couldn’t win against the powerful Pakistani military, and of targeted assassinations of exiled political figures abroad as evidence of their global reach. He loved his country, and his faith, he said, but he was drained, afraid, and pessimistic about Pakistan. Was his future there? Would his family stay? Two of his uncles had died, and his mother was afraid. Violence was the only currency for change, and all it produced was fear and hate.

I told Mehdi that our readings in the coming week would consider whether protest was patriotic or disloyal. Under what conditions should citizens confront their government – its laws and its leaders? With what historical precedents? To ground students in real life examples of protest through the centuries, we would study Thoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King and explore the three men’s legacies of civil disobedience, tolerance, and peace. I hoped Mehdi might find some ideas to ponder as he thought about his country and his future. He gave me a sorrowful look as he left, but I urged him to do the work – and to come to class prepared to contribute.

The next class meetings found a transformed young man, a spark in his eyes, and a desire to comment on so many parts of MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that all his classmates were as amazed as I was. Mehdi himself was smiling, even lighthearted, reading aloud the paragraph about “we’ve waited 340 years,” including its vivid imagery of a young child’s bruised heart when her father tells her she can’t go to the amusement park because she’s black. When Mehdi finished, he said quietly:  “24 more people died in a car bomb at a mosque that is five minutes from my house.  I called my father today, and I told my entire family to read this letter. Because we have tried wars and weapons and hate. Only something as radical as love can save us now.”

Mehdi looked around the room at his fellow students, and then he looked at me. “Professor,” he said, “Pakistan needs a Martin Luther King.”

Photo: Albertin Walker / Library of Congress

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