Tolerance Is a Bad Word

Gregory Jarrett walks along the 900 block of Peeples St. past a mural of Martin Luther King Jr. early Friday afternoon, Sept.
Gregory Jarrett walks along the 900 block of Peeples St. past a mural of Martin Luther King Jr. early Friday afternoon, Sept. 7, 2012 after leaving the Urban Center in Chattanooga, Tenn. (AP Photo/Chattanooga Times Free Press, Dan Henry) THE DAILY CITIZEN OUT; NOOGA.COM OUT; CLEVELAND DAILY BANNER OUT; LOCAL INTERNET OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT: DAN HENRY/CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE PRESS

"I don't think we have school Monday." My oldest said over breakfast. Our morning sounds -- spoons clanging, coffee dripping, cereal pouring -- in the background.

I'm always behind on details like these. School calendars and homework deadlines and permission slips that must be Signed! Returned! Immediately! Are hard for me.

"You don't?" I said, closing the dishwasher, grabbing the cream, wrapping my fingers around my mug, leaning against the counter.

Unphased, used to my ways, she sat twirling her hair, turning back and forth on her stool. "It's Martin Luther King, Jr. Day," she said.

Ah yes, that.

Kids across America (mine included) are preparing to honor one of our greatest heroes by reading books, doing art projects, participating in community service and staying home from school.

I've seen the library books checked out, the projects come home.

Carefully traced hands shakily cut and glued, clasped, with rainbows in the background.

It's good -- so, so very good -- that MLK, Jr's memory and years of tireless service are being honored and remembered today.

I'm glad that my children's lips wrap around his name with ease and familiarity.

In my first year of teaching, when I was young, newly out of school, the ink barely dry on my masters degree, the words I learned in my teaching diversity classes ran smoothly and freely from my lips just like my children say MartinLutherKingJr today. Like it's all one word, all that's important, all that needs to be said.

That year, I came to school early one January morning -- every morning -- deeming my classroom and my lessons and my words choices Important, and lined chairs in rows in the center of the wide green rug. My rocking chair in the front, my students' desks grouped, edging the sides, the metal legs glinting in the sunlight.

I was setting up, "The Bus Scene," determined to show not tell, to make them feel the absurdity of how things once were.

When they arrived, a sea of faces darker than mine -- stunning shades of almond caramel, chocolate -- their eyes scanned the room, the lips rounded in an o, "What is this, teacher?"

In a classroom of 22, only two children were Caucasian and only five had English as their first language. I tried -- futilely, ridiculously -- to break them of the habit of calling me teacher all year long. When I moved to a different school whose sea looked more like me, I missed hearing teacher dearly.

"I want to talk to you guys about something," is how I'd always start my conversations with my students. And that day was not any different.

I sat on the floor in front of them, my legs tucked beneath me, elbows on my knees, leaning forward. They faced me, matching my stance.

I told them about old rules deciding where people could sit, eat, drink, even rules about who could go to school together, and who couldn't.

Their eyes rounded, mirroring their mouths. The delicious o of a thinking child.

We made "rules" for the bus and pretended to follow them, discussing how silly they were, how ugly they felt.

I knew then, like I know now, that these conversations have to happen directly.

We've come so far, yes. But men and women like Martin Luther King Jr. didn't work tirelessly to have us stop showing not telling, to have us stop talking and writing and living out loud about how it feels when laws are wrong.

And I realized, with a jolt, that I talked about these things more openly and directly with my students than I do with my own children. The ones I'm responsible for deeming what words and actions and ways are Important today.

So this morning, crossing the counter and the breakfast and the ease of saying nothing, I faced my daughter, and noted that familiar o.

My move.

I opened the conversation, "I want to talk to you about something."

She interrupted me. "I already know about tolerance, mom." And I bristled.

I hate that word. I do.

I always have.

Conjuring put up with, endure, allow, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. My children may tolerate spinach, long grown-up conversations and too-cold-to-play-outside days. But they will not tolerate people.

People are meant to be celebrated. Enjoyed. Marveled at and learned from.

And that's the heart of the matter. That's the authentic learning that I was looking for as a new teacher and that needs to be aimed for when directly and actively parenting diversity, parenting what's right.

It's about making connections. Talking. Learning. Asking questions.

It was once considered politically correct and polite to not see color. I think the prideful term was, "color blind." I don't see color in my classroom, my play group, or anywhere, really. We're all the same.

Except that we're not and colors are meant to be seen and celebrated, not ignored or tolerated.

And talking to our children -- and to each other -- directly about these things is how we'll get from tolerating to celebrating.

To noticing differences and being wild with curiosity about them. Learning from. Celebrating with. Making others uncomfortable with our endless questions. That's what we should aim for today.

Quietly sitting? Tolerating? No freaking way.