Memories from days at the old Martin Luther King Elementary in Oklahoma City

Pat McGuigan 

Memories updated, Spring 1993 – They were vivacious, like most kids from kindergarten to fourth grade. After lunch, they just couldn’t help themselves.
A child would start to run down the school hall, toward the door, the playground and the outdoors. Principal Wilbur House, Ph.D., blew a whistle to get attention. He made them walk. Simple lessons were part of every day there.

Built in 1922, some called the facility “run-down. ” It looked the way public schools looked in Oklahoma City before the MAPs for KIDS project brought physical plant improvements. It was clean and pleasant, full of people teaching in trying times. 

Teachers there were certainly challenged. 
In a good run of class time, a teacher could get as much as 90 seconds without an interruption. At every school where I spent time, the attention span of TV kids was short (and likely is even shorter in these Internet days). 
The number of inappropriate behaviors acted out in an hour would be daunting to less patient souls, so the teachers at MLK and most sites did well, many days, to keep control and keep learning going for most kids. These were good people.

Students attending the old Martin Luther King Elementary in Oklahoma City three decades ago had more than their share of challenges. 
Nelia Haynes, third-grade teacher, asked them what problems, good and bad, a newspaper editor might have to write about and think about every day.
The list of good things they gave was modest: “We’re learning every day” one girl offered. And “We can help each other” another observed.
Bad things: A lot of shootings nearby. Too much fighting. People who spent a lot of time “talking bad about each other,” and not getting along. People getting hurt. Too many robbers. Rodney King got beat up. 
Gangs, and “all these babies who don’t know who their daddy is. ” Child abuse, and “men snatching kids” — to which one boy rejoined, “women do it, too. ” The kids’ solutions: People need to have meetings to talk about how to get along together. “Call the police, if you need to. ” They need a neighborhood watch program.” “Take care of your own business. ” If someone wants to fight, “just walk off. ” “Bad parents should be put in jail. ” 
Haynes asked what kind of person an editor should be. They told me: Someone fair, cheerful, bright, nice, understanding – and “a sharer. ” 

Memories and hopes were formed during visits then, and in the years after. 
A well-stocked library. A group of 15 kindergarten children walking across the playground, on their way to lunch, loudly singing in unison their ABCs.
Once, sitting at lunch with 15 girls and one boy, I asked each to name a favorite book. Between giggles, each gave one, mostly titles you’d get at any other school: “Hop on Pop,” “Green Eggs and Ham,” pickles poetry, and stories about older children.

I spent part of one day that spring teaching two classes of third-graders (an hour each, some 30 kids in all) about newspapers. Most already understood basic newsroom terms (reporters, columnists, editors, artists, editorial writers, sports, photographers, advertising) and could use the words correctly in a sentence.

Another visit included an hour in lab with three boys and one girl, children who had trouble with both reading and writing. With patience and adult time, they could learn to read, write and think for themselves.

To be sure, students at MLK Elementary faced many challenges, back in my days there. Family problems and social difficulties for many, yes. – but Principal House provided an environment where teachers could teach and kids could learn.
Watching him work the halls led me to deem him Joe Clark (the famous New Jersey principal, now deceased), but without the baseball bat. House diplomatically said, “We believe in firm discipline. ” He was that site’s ultimate authority, but little ones approached him for hugs.

Given time — their own, that of teachers and of adults who would both listen to their dreams and require of them the work needed to make life better – they had a chance to turn out fine. But did enough of adults give them enough time, and examples?

On my first day at MLK, a soft-spoken little guy asked me, “Did you come to see how good we ain’t? ” 
No, son,” I corrected him. 
“I came to see how good you are.”
I met the same little guy on a later visit, in Shawn Alyea‘s laboratory for learning-disabled children. It was a struggle at times, but the little guy read, from a pleasant story appropriate to his age and discernment.

On most of my days at MLK, nothing startling happened. 
Just some kids, reading.

* * * 

Time passed, and I through the spring I spent more time with the students and teachers.
Haynes, the third-grade teacher,  sent a note in response to one of my personal columns, crafted after some of visits. 

We had spent time talking about journalism and about good writing. 
Haynes wrote:
“Thank you for sharing the skills needed and required for … becoming a successful editor with my third year class at Martin Luther King. You have gained many friends here. … The boys and girls have listed adjectives and synonyms to describe you. ” 

Here are excerpts from a poem her pupils sent to The Oklahoman, in the form of a letter to the editor: … 

You were so kind to take the time 
To visit our class and bring us sunshine.
You are so special, and a good teacher too 
We didn’t get bored listening to you. …

We really appreciated your kindness on that day 
For listening and letting us voice our concerns in our own way.
More adults like you should stop and let kids share …
Because everyone should realize that children can care. …

We are really having fun today 
Writing about you is exciting and is play.

Everyone is smiling and adding words to the list 
Making certain we don’t miss a word or clue.

Your name is tricky, yes, indeed 
But all of us have enough to please 
As we end our thank-you note 
We hope you enjoy every word we wrote. ..
To read the article that you wrote about us 

You are a dear friend we’ll always trust. …

With love, Ms. Nelia B. Haynes’ Class.

Perhaps I vaguely resembled the man the children described, but I read their words with a knowing heart. 
The students at Martin Luther King Elementary (1993) were describing themselves.

NOTE: This essay is adapted from commentaries that first appeared in The Oklahoman in 1993.