I love to read Frederick by Leo Leonni to show my students the power of words. The mice are very busy getting ready for the cold dark days of winter. They scurry. They hurry. They work to gather grain. Frederick sits on the old stone wall staring at the sun-drenched field. The outraged mice demand to know why he is isn’t working. Frederick explains that he is working — he is gathering a different kind of food for the winter. Frederick is gathering words and colors. And when the food runs out, he delivers. He helps the mice feel and see that for which they yearn. He uses words to turn the dreams of summer into a winter reality.
Writers collect and arrange words on scraps of paper, in the margins of books, and in notebooks. Then, one by one, words are picked for their precision, grace, and power.
John F. Kennedy collected words and phrases. Above is a scrap of paper that he saved. The words he gathered became the words we know: “Ask not what your country can do for you…” In 1961, at his Inauguration, those words stirred hope into action.
On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech with a powerful start: “I have a dream.” The dream, the words, and the work of Dr. King changed the world, but not right away.
When Dr. King made his speech, I was an eight year old in the last days of summer. A week later I entered the all white third grade at my all white school in Williamsburg, Virginia. Our schools were segregated. It didn’t seem like anything had happened. Yet.
Forty-five years later, I find myself in a third grade classroom. And what a different classroom it is. We are white and black in Room 204, and we can’t imagine our world any other way.
On Tuesday, we will decorate our desks with red, white, and blue paper chains of powerful words. We will turn on the TV and watch Barack Obama take the oath of office. He will say the words that George Washington said (and every president since):
“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Then we will listen to our new president’s words, — words chosen carefully for precision, grace, and power, — words for a country and a world on a cold winter’s day in January.
I will be exactly where I want to be: in Room 204 at William Fox Elementary School, where a dream continues to unfold.