I’m looking out at an auditorium full of amazingly-quiet seventh graders who have come to Washington DC from all over the country to learn about leadership as part of the Junior National Young Leaders Conference. I’m explaining why I wore a black armband to school when I was just a year older than them, back in 1965.
First, I make a game of the First Amendment, and cheer as students call out the five rights: speech, press, religion, assembly, petition. Next, I tell them that black armbands are a kind of speech, symbolic speech, that say someone is sad. Because by 1965, I had a lot to be sad about. There had been Birmingham, and then Freedom Summer, which my parents traveled to Mississippi for, and then Selma. The local version was unfolding right in Des Moines, Iowa, where we lived, and where my father had lost his job as a Methodist minister.
That year, scenes of the Vietnam war covered the TV every night as my sister, Hope, and I cooked the family’s dinner. At age thirteen, it seemed to us like the whole world was on fire: the burning, smoking huts, the children running in terror, “body bags” for the dead, soldiers. And then, the nightly “body count.”
I look out at the kids in the auditorium and ask if they ever feel sad. Yes, yes, they shake their heads. I ask if any of them have someone in their family in war right now. A number of them raise their hands. The boy several rows down says, “My uncle.” “Do you get to e-mail him?” I ask. “Sometimes,” he murmurs.
I call on another student. “My cousin,” the girl replies. “Do you get to write to your cousin?” I ask. “Not really,” she says.
I can’t call on all the children with hands in the air, there are too many. But one boy in the front row has been waving his hand. “Who is it?” I ask. “My dad,” he says. “Wow,” I say. “ That must be hard. Do you get to e-mail him, or talk to him?” “Sometimes,” he says.
I make a note to myself to talk to that boy after the program, and go on. I tell the students that even though we’re here today talking about leadership, we’re also thinking about all those people who are in war, like the families of the kids who just spoke, and the others who had their hands up. And, that we want them to be safe, and to come home soon, and that we’re sad about war. And, I tell them that that’s how us kids felt back when I was in eighth grade, in 1965, that we were sad about war. I think they’re starting to understand.
This Memorial Day, I’m thinking about kids and families who are touched by war. On the Tinker Tour, I’ll encourage kids to speak up about war and all the issues they care about. Please help, by donating at startsomegood.com/tinkertour!