On Teaching MLK the day of Trump’s Inauguration

We have had an unusual amount of snow this winter, with attendant ice storms, and the result has been over a month of Christmas vacation for ESL classes. And so it has come to pass that I am preparing the first lesson of the year for my advanced class. We do a lesson on MLK every year, the Friday before his holiday which is of course on a Monday, and it’s very well received. My students adore MLK. “The Middle East needs someone like that,” different students have told me several times.

Because of the weather, this year I’m doing the lesson a week late, and it falls on the day of President Trump’s inauguration. My students are permanent residents or new citizens of the United States, and this is history. I would be remiss if I didn’t do a lesson on the peaceful transition of power. It’s ironic: my Arab students, even those who are Christian, are more fearful these days, yet they understand why people voted for him. He makes sense to them. After all, they are used to Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, Hosni Mubarak, and other dictator-types.


How to weave the two together? MLK and Trump; history past and history passing. The two seem diametrically opposed in many ways; one preaching non-violence in the face of offense, insult, and the very real threat of death, the other encouraging a mindless sort of violence towards rally-goers who heckled him. One steeped in a tradition of eloquence, using the power of words as a finely-wrought and skillfully-weilded sword, the other using words as a blunt instrument, putting the “bully” back in bully pulpit, his most common words “I” “me” “myself” “my”. One a member of an oppressed minority, with ancestral memories of slavery and beatings, growing up under injustice; the other a member of a elite group of rich white men, posting pictures of his family in an opulent glitzy room that makes up in money what it lacks in taste.

It seems comical, ridiculous to try to put the two into one 90-minute lesson. Yet I will try. This is the world we live in. It’s so broken that Martin Luther King can be assassinated, and Donald Trump can win the presidency. We have made some halting progress as a nation since King’s death; racism still exists, but frankly it exists in every nation on earth and at least we recognize it to a point and deal with it to a point. The mistake is to think it’s a thing of the past, and not look to our own hearts and see our own sin.

And while the two men are both flawed and imperfect, they represent all of us in our multi-faceted and fractured selves. In King, we see one who followed after Perfection; in Trump we see one who follows after Self. (Am I too harsh? No. Have you heard the things he says?)  And yet if we are honest with ourselves, if we examine our hearts, we can see times we have done both, I suspect. I know I can give you examples of both just from this week.

But this may be too subtle for English class. We will look at inaugural traditions, we will read the “I Have a Dream” speech and explain and expound it. I will assign them to watch what they can of the inauguration and to write a response to the speech, and I hope this starts a discussion that carries on in the weeks and months to come. This class likes to do that, stretching their tongues to express their thoughts and hearts in a language that remains elusive and slippery at times. And I will assure them of their welcome to this country, help them write letters when their health-care bills are too high, keep looking for more volunteers to help with ESL classes–just what I’m already doing. In fact, as MLK said, I will “continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.”