While visiting a classroom earlier this week, I listened to Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport and sat in on the discussion which followed. Third graders talked about how nonviolence can bring about change and wondered why water fountains were segregated. Surely the water was exactly the same?
Dr. King’s birthday always makes me think about people I know personally who try to make a difference in the world. Sometimes they get involved because of larger issues like voting rights. Sometimes their reasons are closer to home — cleaning up a local park or creek. Not everyone is able to have the impact of King, Gandhi, or Mandela, but maybe making the world a better place is something we can all try to do, even if only in a small way. One small action might ripple out into something bigger.
My list of small attempts is long if I think back – tutoring and mentoring, interning for an international organization, teaching English to refugees and immigrants, reading with little kids and hospice patients, creating story time kits, and helping out in classrooms, after-school programs, food pantries, homeless shelters, free medical clinics and community greenhouses. Sometimes I’ve chosen things I love; sometimes I’ve chosen things that are outside my comfort zone. Either way, I’ve always known that there is more work to do in the community than I can expect someone else to get done — or that I can ever get done. I’ve learned that whatever anyone else gets out of my time, big or small, I will feel good about the time spent. This was true when I was unemployed and needed a reason to not think about the depressing reality of my job search, but it was also true when I laughed with elderly Vietnamese ladies learning English and listened to one of my hospice patients rant about politics. Having a glimpse into others’ lives has had a powerful influence on how I see the world and my role in it.
This brings me to Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch by Eileen Spinelli (1996). I first came across Mr. Hatch while looking for a Valentine’s Day project to do with kids. (For a wonderful online reading of it, go here to listen to Hector Elizondo’s interpretation.) Mr. Hatch has a simple and very gray life until he mistakenly receives a package and begins to step out of his routines and involve himself in his neighbors’ lives. When the truth about the package comes out, we see how he’s changed his neighbors and made a difference. It’s a great way to talk with younger kids about their ability to affect other people — a discussion which fits perfectly with the messages of how our actions affect others, and how we, too, have the power to change our neighborhoods, communities and nations. We might not all be Dr. King, but even our smallest attempts can matter to someone.