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The Gordon School

Civil Rights Trip 2018 day three

For seventeen years, Gordon has taken its eighth grade to Montgomery as part of the Civil Rights Trip.

This year was the first time that the Montgomery stop included the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Dr. King was pastor during the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

The staff greeted the Gordon group like prodigal family.

Then, they worked the students hard.

Within five minutes of greeting hugs and introductions, they had the Gordon students in and out of their seats twice, led them in three choruses of This Little Light of Mine, challenged them to love themselves, and ran them through two responsorial recitations drawn from Dr. King's most famous speeches.

There was a group of first graders there, too, Brighten Academy of Douglasville GA, so the tougher history questions were directed to the adults.

Before Gordon left with Anne Clemons for her guided tour of the city, there were more hugs and handholding on the sidewalk out front.

It had been a dizzying visit that emphasized, for the Gordon faculty, that there was still more to be discovered in Montgomery.

The day before, that same message had come in another form.
While many of the themes were familiar from the Gordon trips, many of the details were not.

It is clear that Gordon could shake up its entire Montgomery itinerary and still have a rewarding and rich visit.

The Equal Justice Initiative's National Memorial for Peace and Justice will be an important addition for future trips.

The scale of the memorial is, appropriately, shocking, with 801 six-foot columns representing US counties where over four thousand documented lynchings occurred.

It opens April 28th.

Fifteen years ago, when Gordon students spent an afternoon in Montgomery with James Allen discussing his collection of lynching photography, it was inconceivable that academic scholarship, and American culture, would evolve to the point where a public memorial like this one would be possible.

But then again, just a year ago, it seemed a safe bet that Alabama would never elect a Democratic senator again - especially not Doug Jones the former federal prosecutor that Gordon's eighth grade met with in Birmingham in 2013.

The final stop in Montgomery was the National Civil Rights Memorial at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The SPLC lawyers, researchers and educators who meet with Gordon each year give the eighth graders solid proof that there are meaningful jobs in the adult world for people who are serious about making positive change in the world.

This year, they met with a researcher who infiltrates hate groups, online and in person, to gather what she called 'opposition research.'

The students were riveted by that story, with its air of espionage.

But they made a more personal connection with the other presenter, Nanyamka Shukura, who works in the children's rights practice group.

She talked through some of the legal and cultural dissonances that make life as a student unstable: the difference between a school offense and a legal crime, for one thing, especially when there are police officers stationed in schools alongside educators.

The definitions of defiance, willful disobedience and misbehavior are circular and open to abuse.

Alabama has mandatory school attendance laws but, peculiarly, does not assert that school age children have the right to an education.

Implemented across an entire school system, these are the kinds of cracks that students slip through and disappear.

She joked about not telling the group her whole life story, but she peppered her presentation with vignettes from her own early adolescence.

Eventually, some of the Gordon adults did the math and figured out that Ms. Shukura was thirty, the same age as the first Gordon students to go on the Civil Rights Trip.

That made the connection very real for the adults.

If any Gordon teachers on that first trip left the SPLC daydreaming about having a student work there someday, Ms. Shukura was a vision of that dream come true.

In fact, she may be some teacher's dream come true.

'I came to the SPLC, too, when I was a little older than your kids,' she explained after the presentation.

'I was with my school group, and we met with staff.'

'I still have that picture of all of us, gathered around the memorial outside.'

'I think every school takes that picture.' 
'Does your school do that too?'

After a third intense day of learning, the eighth grade spent the last evening of the trip rollerskating and playing laser tag at Atlanta's Starlight Family Fun Center.
In an appropriate blend of the adolescent and the adult, the group had three cakes: two in recognition of the final Civil Rights Trips for Head of School Ralph Wales and Assistant Head Kim Ridley, who are leaving Gordon in June, and a third cake for one student's fourteenth birthday.
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