MLK Day: It Doesn’t Matter With Me Now

Jose Vilson Education, Jose

Martin Luther King Jr. Pledging Allegiance at the Lincoln Memorial

I’m not going to quit being an educator. Even when people want me to quit, even when the gossip comes raining down, even when the whole world tries to tell me that education is not particularly valuable in the American hierarchy of occupations, I know I cannot quit. I know when people ask me to stop talking about the prejudices and injustices of the day, whether subliminally or overtly, I’ve made headway into the minds and hearts of someone. I’ve agitated some conversation. I’ve made people formed in their ideals tweak their core beliefs just a little bit. While the list of people I can thank for this passion wraps around a lake or two, I always think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Lots of people thank him. The people who are indebted to him and the people who reciprocate that legacy by paying it forward are almost immeasurable. My story here will reveal a little more than I should reveal, but I really don’t care. My truth is as close to objective as I can get it without being overtly nice and fumbling with words. I’m more concerned with accuracy than agreeability. Without this story, I wouldn’t have a blog, I wouldn’t have a job, and I wouldn’t tell you just how much courage it takes for educators to teach in the face of pseudo-accountability, economic persuasion, and intellectual invasion.

In my second year of teaching, I was teaching my 8th graders how to translate verbal expressions into mathematical equations when I hear this booming voice in the hallway. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it didn’t bode well for someone. One of my students who had gone to the bathroom came back and whispered to me in the middle of my lesson, “Mr. Vilson, they’re talking about you. It’s your bulletin board.” I turned back to the student and in my usual Vilsonness deflected it and got back to work on one of my favorite topics in math.

Later in the day, my AP at the time came in and admonished me for my bulletin board and my classroom, where at once people confused my aesthetics with my pedagogy. None of this made sense to me. City College never taught me about aesthetics as a means to get my students engaged in the actual material. I hadn’t read Lisa Delpit or Pedro Noguera yet. The intensity of such a simple item as a display for student work might have made me laugh if not for my tenuous relationship (at best) with the administration. Now, there was a “legitimate” basis for destroying the life of an untenured teacher who the children actually enjoyed learning from.

I am not without fault here. I respect that aesthetics actually help students feel like the classroom is their home, and that they’re coming into a place of learning. They can see themselves within a building that better housed factory workers than students, mimicking wide open spaces like jails would. I was still so fresh and young, I didn’t walk and talk with much confidence around administration, despite my deadpan exterior. Never did I imagine that I’d have to pause everything I was doing at the time, including my graduate coursework, to beautify my classroom. I only say this half-sarcastically.

With the immense pressure and lack of real support from administration at that point, I turned to three gentlemen who I knew might have an answer for me: Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and John Lennon. While the latter two were certainly inspirational, MLK Jr.’s “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” speech carried me through this depressing portion of my year. I sat there, letting these words repeat in my speakers while I reflected both in written word and in my mind:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”
– Martin Luther King Jr., “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” April 3rd, 1968

As I let the tears stream down my face, I decided to take action. My math coach at the time consulted me, my fellow teachers pleaded with me, and my commenters empathized with me, but none of it helped as much as the aforementioned words of MLK. So I did the best thing possible: I posted this quote and others all over my desk, front and center. My students inquired about it, and I told them the reasoning behind the quotes themselves. My lesson plans became stronger and I taught with more passion and urgency. I’d never cared so much in my life since I was almost too sure my days were numbered.

Every night, I’d talk to my avatars, hoping they’d have some answers for me. Even with some of the discipline issues I was having in my classroom, they told me to just be patient, and I’d be rewarded handsomely for these trials of my character. Now I write you with a self-efficacy that I never thought I’d have. Despite my current frustrations with the school system as a whole, I don’t fear losing what I’ve attained as a teacher or leader, as I’ve felt like I could lose it all before. I’ve known what that’s like since I started. I stay humble because I know, no matter how far up this proverbial ladder I reach, I can lose it all.

It doesn’t matter with me now.

If it’s not about helping our students, it’s not worth my time. I’ve never come within an inch of my life of dying from a sneeze. I’ve never organized huge protests all over the nation, dodging bullets and rocks in the process. I’ve never had my house burnt down (I almost did but that never came to be). Yet, I’ve officially punched my card in. I will not quit.

We will get there, even with my eyes closed.

Mr. Vilson, who will podcast this soon.