This question actually came up today with a group of 3rd graders that I am currently working with at Rothenberg Preparatory Academy, just up the hill here in Over-the-Rhine. Why? Because their play, which we have just completed brainstorming, is absolutely compelling. While the other three classes I am working with at the moment have decided to take a much more light-hearted turn on the boards, complete with dragons, mermaids, and elephants, these kids wanted to write their play about American History – specifically slavery.
I'm a believer in magic – I like unicorns and rainbows. I'm incredibly excited about mermaids and dragons. Conversations with 3rd graders about whipping children who had tried to escape slavery and an abusive master are not things that make me comfortable. I was, and still am, just as nervous about this topic as I was about teen preganancy, yet I also see the amazing educational opportunities here. After all, it is so important to examine the difficult questions, too, isn't it?
The conversations that arose today were incredible. We actually took a map and drew the Mason-Dixon line across the country to help the students determine the settings for our play. We discussed the Underground Railroad and the penalties faced by escaping slaves and those who helped them. The children decided that the two slave childen in our story were eventually sold to a new master who treated them with respect, allowing them time to play. It was also decided that this person risked everything to teach his slaves to read.
"Why was it against the law to teach slaves to read?" the teacher asked the class. The answers came swiftly back:
"Because if they can read, then they can read signs and maps to help them escape."
"They could write to everyone to gather together and fight the white people." "You mean cause a rebellion?" I asked. "Yeah."
"Because they might be able to write about their experiences as a slave and make people want to stop slavery."
Yes, I promise, these were 3RD GRADERS.
In between these coversations, these kids got excited about Pizza Day tomorrow, squirmed on the carpet where they were sitting, and totally enjoyed the theatre game we played. They were kids.
Ultimately, it was decided that the enslaved children in our play were set free by the Emacipation Proclamation and escaped to the North, specifically to Cincinnati where the chldren decided they would live happily ever after.
Looking around that room of bright and hopeful young faces, with whom I had discussed ignorance, racism, slavery, and cruelty in another hot room, I hoped that would be true.