By Kevin Jones, 8th Grade Social Studies Teacher, KIPP NYC
“I met Rosa Parks when I was 17. I met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when I was 18. These two individuals inspired me to find a way to get in the way, to get in trouble. So I got in good trouble, necessary trouble.” — John Lewis
In life, there are moments when we are reminded that we are in the process of living history. Such was the case for a group of 40 students and their teachers from KIPP Academy (Bronx, NY), as we entered the congressional offices of an American treasure, civil rights icon, and congressman, John Lewis. And such is the case as I walk through the streets of the South Bronx on my way to teach every day.
KIPP NYC schools are committed to social justice, civil rights, and instilling our students with a sense of intellectual curiosity and purpose with respect to social issues. So, the opportunity to hear, firsthand, from John Lewis as he described the sit-ins, bus boycotts, and the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, on the way to Montgomery, left all of us in awe and deeply inspired.
Our visit with the congressman was even more incredible because it was, in fact, the second time that this group of students had met Mr. Lewis; they had met with him previously as 5th graders in 2014. This time, however, was very different. On the bus prior to our arrival at the Capitol, the students read an excerpt from MARCH, an award-winning graphic novel, written by John Lewis. Despite the bus being filled with 40 8th graders, you could hear a pin drop. They were completely engaged and focused on what was about to take place.
Without a doubt, being in the presence of John Lewis was a surreal experience for the students to the point that each time the congressman showed a picture of himself, protesting during the Civil Rights era, a student would ask, “Is that you?” It was evident that, for the first time, students were beginning to truly understand that everything that they had read in a textbook, watched in a video clip, and discussed in class, with respect to the Civil Rights Movement, was real. It really did happen, and the man sitting in front of them was there; he was, and remains, part of that history.
Upon our return to the Bronx, we watched the film Selma which features John Lewis’s character prominently. One day, while walking down the hallway, I asked one of my students, Kenneth, what he thought of the film and he responded, “Oh, wow! It’s crazy! I’m watching the movie and I can’t believe everything he [John Lewis] went through… we really met him!” For Kenneth and many of the 8th graders, the visit with John Lewis served as a social justice anchor as they returned to school. These students have begun the process of understanding what it means to stand up, be heard, and “get in the way.”
So, what about me, the teacher? For me, not a day has passed since our visit with Congressman Lewis where I have not thought about his message to take action when you see something that is not just or fair. Get in the way. Make good trouble; necessary trouble. I think about it every day while riding the subway or walking the streets of the South Bronx, and I am even more inspired to make a difference in the lives of our students and families.
Yes, the Civil Rights Movement has morphed and changed over the years, but we can each contribute in the best way we know how. In this way, we honor the work and commitment of John Lewis.