As I reflect on the 50th anniversary tomorrow of the Selma March—during which 600 courageous civil rights marchers were attacked by police with billy clubs and tear gas for daring to demand voting rights in the segregationist South—I think about the lessons this watershed moment holds for the teenagers who are having their own impassioned discussions about race and police violence.
I too was reflecting on many of these lessons earlier this year when I joined a group of eighth and ninth graders for a special viewing of the recent film, Selma.
These students attend an intentionally diverse regional school in Rhode Island, designed to serve two urban and two suburban communities. It is a place where diversity is more than an abstract goal but rather a reality that is embedded into their mission because it defines the everyday school experience of students and staff.
It was a special event for me because almost all of these eighth and ninth graders are my former students. How special, that I could sit with them to learn, reflect and likely become even more inspired to continue the important work of bringing high-quality schools to every child.
There was a time that my own children attended a school where movies were regularly used without any connection to curriculum or current events. The day before Christmas vacation invariably made for a viewing of Frosty the Snowman or the Grinch, and the last days of school were inevitably movie and party days where close to 50 kids packed into a sweltering room to watch one of the current and popular kids’ films of the day.
So, for me, the viewing of “Selma” turned this idea of frivolous movie-viewing on its head. These students knew they were being honored by their school leaders and teachers who believe their students need and deserve deeper exposure to this ugly chapter in our history.
After the viewing, students and staff participated in a panel discussion with a fittingly diverse group of community leaders to include an urban (and Latino) mayor, two city police detectives, and the president of the Providence NAACP. Students were specifically interested in discussing how to engage with law enforcement post-Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown. They were also struck by how much relevance the civil rights movement held in their lives today in 2015.
Some of the best people I have ever known have been my students. How lucky was I, that I got to sit beside them at the movies and watch such an important piece of American history that still holds so much relevance for all of us today.