By Barb Arland-Fye
Fourth-graders in Deb Frick’s class at All Saints Catholic School in Davenport brought the Civil Rights Movement to life in a play that focused on respect – a word posted prominently in their classroom.
Although the Montgomery Bus Boycott of the mid-1950s might seem like ancient history to 9- and 10-year-olds, these children gave the story a fresh retelling during Catholic Schools Week earlier this month.
Because I had gotten to know her students while serving as their Junior Achievement teacher last fall, Deb invited me to the short play that took place over a lunch hour.
The students began reading the “Montgomery Bus Boycott” play after Christmas break. Their schoolmates in Abby Shaw’s fourth-grade class chose to perform a play about Abraham Lincoln.
Deb’s class had been studying about the southeastern United States and learned more about Martin Luther King Jr. in January, his birth month.
“But they hadn’t grown up with some of the issues we had in American in the 1950s and ‘60s. You have to explain some things: even though President Lincoln freed the slaves, 100 years later people (of color) were not treated equally.”
Deb shared personal experiences to make the point: she was exposed to rioting and protests on the TV news during her growing-up years, as well as broadcasts of Martin Luther King, Jr. leading peaceful, nonviolent marches.
Nine-year-old Alex Heckroth portrayed the great civil rights leader. It’s a role he wanted “because I know how to speak in front of people and I can speak loud and I am a fan of Martin Luther King Jr. He changed people. Whites used to hate blacks and blacks used to hate whites and now they’re friends,” Alex said. He practiced his lines every night at home with his mom and dad and also with his teacher, he added.
Anna Moritz played another pivotal role in the play — Rosa Parks, the woman whose refusal to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., in December 1955 led to the bus boycott.
All of the students played their roles with a convincing interpretation of the attitudes of that era — whether as lawyer, Rosa’s husband, bus rider, bus driver, police officer, jailer or protestor. The withering look the fourth-grade bus driver gave her classmate (Anna as Rosa) reminded me that such body language remains an ugly part of society’s visual vocabulary.
Also giving a sense of the boycott era was a colorful drawing of a 1950s city bus on a cardboard backdrop that ran the length of a bookcase in the classroom – about 12 to 14 feet.
Deb hopes putting on the play for family, friends and schoolmates, instills an indelible lesson in the minds of her students.
“Rosa Parks stood up for what she believed in. But we also emphasize that we have to respect one another. I really stress the word ‘respect’ in my class. I tell my students that they don’t have to like everyone they meet, but you have to give that person respect.”
It’s a reminder we need to hear at every age.