It's morning meeting time. "When Dr. King was little, he learned a golden rule," sings a class of 4- and 5-year-olds with their teacher, Carolyn Barnhardt.
John Eaton Elementary School, a public school in Washington, D.C., is unusual. It sits in one of the District's wealthiest neighborhoods, but the majority of students hail from different parts of the city, making it one of the most racially and economically diverse elementary schools in the nation's capital.
Barnhardt, who has been a prekindergarten teacher for 25 years, remembers a time when schools were not so diverse.
"I am part of the Dr. Martin Luther King era," she says, explaining how she grew up in the segregated South. "I experienced the white-only water fountains, the colored section in the bus station. The lunch counters — I remember not being able to sit there to eat lunch. And I went to the colored-only schools, it was all — everything was segregated.
"I was 6 years old when the Rosa Parks episode happened, so I kinda sorta remember the beginning of the civil rights movement as a little girl," she says.
Today, Barnhardt teaches in a classroom she could have only dreamed about at that age, one where black, white, Asian and Arab children sit shoulder to shoulder.
Her kids are bursting to show off what they know about Rosa Parks and King.
"I know about Dr. King. He changed the laws, so everybody with that skin could go everywhere they want," Emil Timko says.
"He got shot," Kieran Dockett-Gilbert says, "because people didn't like what he said."
"When Dr. King was little, he learned a golden rule from how to treat another," Graciela Lang chimes in.
"When I tell them about some of the things that I'm teaching them about Dr. King, I let them know that I have experienced it myself," Barnhardt says. "I think it's so easy for me to convey all this to these little people. I don't know if some people think that, 'Gosh, 4- and 5-year-olds?' But I think they understand."
The lessons have resonated with 5-year-old Jonah Hack, who is African-American. He was taken in by his white mother, Andrea Hack, when he was only 2 weeks old. She eventually adopted Jonah, as both his biological parents were homeless.
"A few nights ago," Hack says, "Jonah mentioned 'Martin Doctor Luther Junior King' and his 'dream that changed the world.' I asked him what he knew about Dr. King, and Jonah told me about his dream, which wasn't a dream you have when you sleep, but something you hope for."
She says they have talked about skin color before, but until now it has been in simple terms.
For example, Jonah asked her what color his 6-month-old twin sisters would be. "White," Hack answered.
In their conversations over the last two weeks, Hack says, Jonah has recognized he is a "brown person."
"A long, long time ago," he told his mother, "brown people couldn't go to the park with the other people, but Dr. King's dream changed this."
"This was the first time that I think Jonah has understood about racism," Hack says, "and I know that now the genie's out of the bottle. It's never going back in."
"This is my son," she says. "I don't want him to have any hardships, but of course, he will." Tears stream down her face. "Unfortunately, the color of his skin — and that we have different colors of skin — is going to be a hardship. Whether it is minor or a major hardship is, you know, yet to be seen, but it's there."
Joanne Levine is an editor with NPR's Morning Edition. Her two children attend John Eaton Elementary School in Washington, D.C.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's recall someone who once won the Nobel Peace Prize. It is the holiday to honor Martin Luther King, and on this day we've been hearing of his legacy through the voices of young people. Our colleague, Joanne Levine, heard her 5-year-old son talking about King's life-and-death, so she began asking other parents in her son's class what their children were saying. This is what she found.
CAROLYN BARNHARDT: Good morning boys and girls.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Good morning, Miss Barnhardt.
JOANNE LEVINE, BYLINE: This is a classroom at John Eaton Elementary School. It's a diverse public school in Washington, D.C., where my two children happen to go. For the last two weeks, one teacher has been telling her class about Martin Luther King, Jr.
BARNHARDT: Let's start with the poem about Dr. King that we learned - wait a minute, wait a minute - let's start together. Are you ready?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Yes.
BARNHARDT: OK, so here we go. When...
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Dr. King was little, he learned the golden rule.
LEVINE: Her name is Carolyn Barnhardt, and she teaches prekindergarten.
BARNHARDT: I am a part of the Dr. Martin Luther King era. I know just about everything there is to know about him because I experienced it, and I have brought that with me to the children.
LEVINE: Barnhardt came of age in 1950's South Carolina.
BARNHARDT: I experienced the white-only water fountains, the colored section in the bus station, the lunch counters. I remember not being able to sit there to eat lunch, and I went to the colored-only schools. It was all - everything was segregated. I was 6 years old when the Rosa Parks episode happened, and so I kind of sort of remember the beginning of the civil rights movement as a little girl.
LEVINE: A little girl about the same age as the students she's teaching. They're black, white, Asian and Arab, and they sit shoulder to shoulder every day.
EMIL: My name is Emil. I know about Dr. King. He changed the laws so everybody with that skin could go everywhere they want.
GRACIELA: My name is Graciela and when Dr. King was little, he learned a golden rule from how to treat another.
JONAH: My name is Jonah and Rosa Parks was sitting on the front of the bus, and the police came and she - took her to jail.
LEVINE: I spoke with Jonah's mother, Andrea Hack.
ANDREA HACK: Jonah, just out of the blue, started talking to me about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and he told me how this Dr. King had a dream that changed the world. And I asked him, well, what was that dream? And he said it wasn't one where he was asleep. It was something he just hoped for.
LEVINE: Andrea Hack has lots of hopes for her son, Jonah. She's white. Jonah is black. His sisters, 6-month-old twins, are also white.
HACK: It has come up a few times. When the babies were born, he did mention he was wondering what color they were going to be.
LEVINE: Hack says learning about Dr. King has made her son recognize things about himself.
HACK: And he said and I'm a brown person. And I just - I got tears in my eyes 'cause I thought this is - now when - my son now realizes about racism, and how do you talk to your child about that?
LEVINE: She knows that this is the beginning of a long conversation.
HACK: This is my son, you know, I don't - I don't want him to have any hardships, you know, but, of course, he will. And, unfortunately, the color of his skin and the fact that we have different colors of skin is going to be a hardship. It's - whether it's a minor hardship or a major one is, you know, yet to be seen, but it is - it's there. People see it.
LEVINE: Joanne Levine, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.