At the end of four days in Montgomery, Alabama, I carried home one penny and a rock.
The invitation to Montgomery had come from Teaching Tolerance after I was accepted to join its advisory board. The board meeting schedule included three packed days of training, excellent speakers and shared presentations and experiences. We had time during the days before and after to explore the historic area on our own—places like the Civil Rights Memorial Center and the Equal Justice Initiative. My heart and brain left bursting with new ideas, perspectives, inspiration and memories with new friends. The small rock and single penny that I carried home will be continuous reminders of my time in Alabama and the work I am challenged to do.
The lowly penny. During one meeting session, every person in the room was handed a penny with the charge to remember a significant event or a memory from the year stamped on the coin. My still-shiny penny was minted in 2015. As we shared around the room, we talked of dates that prompted memories of high school graduations, rock concerts, personal accomplishments, births, trips, sicknesses, new jobs. These coins allowed us an avenue to tell our own stories, and those stories became the gift of making connections.
People often cast aside pennies, leaving them at the bottom of a purse or lying on a dresser, believing they have no worth. Each of us in the room was invited to keep our penny as a reminder of the value and importance of every individual’s story—and the significance of building relationships with our students and colleagues.
And then there is my rock. It is not much bigger than a pebble, cream colored with tiny gray veins, chosen from atop a slab of concrete near the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Alabama. This slab was the exact location where the marchers gathered to begin the 54-mile trek from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Our guide, Joanne Bland, told us each to select a rock and hold it in our hands. The rock would be our reminder to be strong and brave as we work to teach acceptance and respect. I do not take for granted the opportunity I was given to stand on the same ground where ordinary people had made the courageous decision to stand up for what was just, no matter the cost. And I do not discount the gift that led me to tour Selma in a car with Joanne Bland, a remarkable woman who was 11 years old when she marched from Selma to Montgomery. By the time she was 11, she had been arrested 13 times.
The school year for my students began on August 16, 2017. The deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, had taken place four days before, with local, national and international news stations airing the photos and videos of senseless violence, anger and hate. These images and thoughts were fresh on all our minds as we started the year.
Before Charlottesville, I had planned to begin the school year with my penny and my rock. After Charlottesville, I wanted each of my teachers to have their own penny and rock, too. For me, these are two small but mighty mementos of my days in Alabama and the new friends and incredible support I’ve discovered. For all of us, they can represent the importance of making connections with students and colleagues. They can remind us to be strong and brave when teaching students why each person deserves to feel safe, supported and accepted.
Joanne Bland told our group, “We may not come as far as we’d like, but we are not where we were.” My wish for each of you: to have your own penny and your own rock as we travel this important journey together.
Hartman is a secondary school librarian in Hutto, Texas. She is also a member of the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board.