Brenda is a fourth grader at my elementary school. Her father and mother moved here to South Carolina from Mexico, and she speaks two languages fluently: Spanish at home and English at school. She is a quiet, thoughtful child with contemplative eyes and attentive ears. She is a normal fourth grader — if a friend tickles her, she laughs; if she falls and scrapes her knee, she cries; if you listen to her, she will tell you her story. She is also a scholar and a saint in the wonderful ways a 10-year-old can be scholarly and saintly — she reads anything about everything every time she can, and she volunteers her early mornings to read to struggling first graders. She is a great kid.
Today, I sat down with her in the hallway.
"What do you want to be when you grow up?" I asked.
"I want to be a doctor," she answered.
"Why do you want to be a doctor?" I continued.
When I talk with students, I often use the "5 Whys" strategy to try to understand what they are thinking and feeling.
"Because I think it would be a good job."
"Because I like to study and I want to help people."
"Because I want to help babies grow and experience more in the United States."
"Because I want to learn more about their culture."
"Because I want them to ... live."
I was thunderstruck by her answer, as I often am as I work with children. Of course that is why she wants to be a doctor. She wants to help people ... live. It is as simple and complex as that.
Her answer helped me think about a video created by the Anti-Defamation League to celebrate their 100th anniversary.
The video is titled "Imagine A World Without Hate." As John Lennon's song Imagine plays in the background, people read, browse and watch news with these headlines –
* Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 84, champions immigration reform
* Anne Frank wins Nobel Prize for her 12th novel
* Harvey Milk expands LGBT equality globally
* Daniel Pearl, 49, Journalist, wins Pulitzer for "Uncovering Al-Qaeda"
* James Byrd, Jr., 63, Jasper, TX Resident Saves Young Girl From Burning Building
* Matthew Shephard, 36, Leads Anti-Bullying Coalition
* Yitzhak Rabin, 90, honored for nearly two decades of Israeli-Palestinian peace
It asks the searching question, "What could these individuals have continued to contribute to society if bigotry, hate and extremism had not cut their lives tragically short?"
It is a great question.
I think I can answer it with a great kid.
The question for me as a teacher is not so much "What could have been?" as it is "What can be?"
I think of Brenda holding signs that say, "I am MLK," "I am Anne Frank," "I am Harvey Milk," "I am Daniel Pearl," "I am James Byrd, Jr.," "I am Matthew Shephard," and "I am Yitzhak Rabin." Though she cannot really be them, she certainly can take up their work and carry it on in her own life. She wants to become a doctor so she can help people live. With that spirit, she will help these martyrs live, too.
As a teacher, it is my job not only to help students imagine a world without hate, but also to help them find the tools and the heart to build it. That is how I can be MLK, Anne Frank, Harvey Milk, Daniel Pearl, James Byrd, Jr., Matthew Shephard, and Yitzhak Rabin.
That is how I can build a world without hate. Let it be.
Trevor Scott Barton is an elementary school teacher in Greenville, S.C. He is a blogger for the Teaching Tolerance project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Image: John Lennon memorial mosaic in Central Park, June Marie Sobrito / Shutterstock.com