Students celebrate legacy of Dr. King

LAKEVILLE - It was cold and gray outdoors on Monday, but the Elfers music hall at The Hotchkiss School was full of warm vibes and sunny spirits for the annual celebration of diversity, civil liberties and the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Often, the school invites a notable person to come and speak to students and faculty for the celebration of Dr. King’s birthday. This year, however, the theme of the event was embracing anyone and everyone, and it was students and faculty who shared their thoughts on the state of the world today, on where we’ve come and where we still need to go to help fulfill Dr. King’s dream that "one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ "

Lined up in chairs on the spacious stage at Elfers Hall was an assortment of students and faculty who had been asked to read writings from other students and faculty. Some of the essays were recent, and students in the audience perked up and smiled as their writings were read out loud.

Other essays were as much as a decade old, like the piano prodigy’s memories of the day when she was 10 years old and her mother ripped up her piano music and notes. She was preparing for a music competition in Seoul, Korea, and had realized that her hands were not big enough yet to reach all the keys she needed to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto K467.

"If you weren’t willing to practice, you shouldn’t have entered the competition!" the mother yelled before closing and locking the piano and leaving the room. In the high pressure environment of The Hotchkiss School, this story seemed to particularly move many of the students. Some wiped tears from their eyes.

The writers of the stories were not identified, and it was apparent that the readers were often from different cultures than the authors of the pieces they read. A tall, dark young man read a story about being excluded, for no apparent reason, from certain Hotchkiss social groups. Other students, friends, tell him he "practically has Asian status." He isn’t sure what that means, exactly; and he isn’t sure why other students feel it’s okay, within his hearing, to make derogatory comments about Jews.

"People tell me I ‘look’ Jewish," the author wrote. "How can you ‘look’ like an organized religion?"

Many of the essays had a more global orientation. Students — and teachers — universally acknowledged in their essays that they are extremely fortunate to live the lives they lead and to be at the school. There are bad days, when teachers are disillusioned by the students they felt so close to, when students wish they could be home "so I could fight with my parents and then hug them in person instead of on a long-distance telephone call." And they said that their good fortune makes them aware of how unfortunate other people are, here in America and abroad in countries such as Darfur and Afghanistan.

The global tone of the morning event was set by new headmaster Malcolm McKenzie, who grew up in South Africa.

"I’ve only voted twice in my life," the headmaster said at the beginning of the event. He stood casually center stage, dressed in a V-neck sweater and slacks and no tie. He felt that voting would imply approval of the South African political system, and he didn’t want to confer that. But in 1974, when he was a student at the University of Cape Town, he and his fellow students not only voted but created their own political party, called the Alliance of Radical Change. Eight student leaders had been "banned" by the government that year, which meant that their civil liberties were severely curtailed and they were not allowed to speak to groups of people.

McKenzie and other students wanted to protest the banning but they needed to be recognized as a "legal entity" if they wanted to "do things like put up posters, things that were not allowed under Apartheid." So they formed a political party and put one of the banned students on the ballot for the next election.

Many things were banned under apartheid, McKenzie said, including the writings of Dr. King.

"We were not allowed to read or hear his speeches," the headmaster recalled. "But we did pass his speeches around, clandestinely. He was extremely important to us. We would not have done what we did if it weren’t for outside voices of great significance, such as that of Martin Luther King. I knew many of his speeches by heart when I was your age."

Dr. King was not only concerned with America, McKenzie explained. He sought freedom, justice, safety and happiness for the people of all nations. The headmaster referred to the speech known as "Sleeping Through the Revolution," in which Dr. King spoke about the poverty and sickness he saw on his travels in India.

"He was, to me in South Africa, a real internationalist," McKenzie said, and encouraged his students to remember that "what happens here at The Hotchkiss School is affected by what happens in the rest of the world today."

Above all, he encouraged the students not "to shy away from the areas where we diverge. We need to find points of similarity, of course, but when it comes to our differences let’s address them. Difference is a fantastic educator."



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