The 31 students in Deborah Van Doren’s fifth grade class at P.S.10 in Brooklyn knew that Joan Pleune was coming to talk to them and to answer their questions — because she had been a Freedom Rider in 1961 and had spent six weeks in jail for her participation. They’d been studying the Civil Rights Movement and would soon be performing an opera at their school on the heroes of that time in history.
She started off by saying, “What do you know about the Civil Rights Movement?” They knew a lot – and then the questions started to come. Some had already been written down in the notebooks in the students’ laps. Many others emerged from the animated discussion: What was jail like? How were mixed-race people treated in the south? Were you against Malcolm X? Were there times when you were really scared? Did you know any famous people in the Civil Rights Movement? Was your mother scared when you and your sister told her you were going on the Freedom Rides? Did you have non-violence training? Were you scared that your bus would be attacked like at Anniston, Alabama? What made you want to go? What are the jails in NYC like? Which jails are the worst jails?
Joan told stories about jail. They were housed on Death Row. Prisoners had one shower a week and no change of clothes for six weeks. The freedom riders in the women’s jail staged a mini-revolt – they took off their clothes! Their jailers did not know what to do. The food was terrible – lots of lima beans. Joan doesn’t eat lima beans any more. They shared their food with the other prisoners.
She explained that it was her sense of fairness that made her go. “ When I was 9 or 10 I heard about Jackie Robinson integrating baseball – that’s how I started thinking about race. All that fuss because a Black man was going to play for the Dodgers – that seemed crazy to me.”
“When was the last time you were arrested?” asked one boy. Joan talked about her recent arrest at Hancock Air Force Base in Syracuse, New York where drone pilots sit at computers and kill people in Iraq, Afghanistan and in countries with whom we are not at war.
One student explained drones to his classmates. Another said that it makes war and killing seem like a video game. Video games – that was something these children knew about. “They use video games to train kids for the military.” “Why are you only worried about drones?” asked a boy. “It’s not just drones, “ replied Joan. “ It’s the larger issue of war and killing. Drones are only a little piece of that. Do you guys know about surveillance drones? That’s like high tech stop and frisk.“ A discussion followed with one young man explaining stop and frisk. Ms. Van Doren suggested that fifth graders should have a curriculum about drones.
History was made very real on June 4 in this Brooklyn classroom. A visitor who acted bravely to make change, an enormously talented teacher who had facilitated a broad examination of a hugely important period of American history and a group of students who had done a lot of study and preparation about this time all came together to have a deep and lively conversation about activism in the 1960s and activism today!
- Connie Norgren
for the Granny Peace Brigade