For an hour Friday morning, students in Lori Grant’s fifth-grade class at Paxson Elementary were asked to consider what peace looks, sounds and feels like to them, and write it into a poem.
They stood before the class, some more nervous than others, and read their answers:
Birds chirping. A flower blooming. A walk through the woods. Always love.
The exercise was part of Montana Campus Compact’s eighth annual “Read for Peace” day, where community volunteers read books to elementary school students around the state about Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.
Following the readings, students have a chance to write poems, participate in an inequality activity, or draw their ideas of what a better, more equal world would look like.
About 75 volunteers read to 111 classrooms in Missoula on Friday, as most schools take Monday off to mark the day. Julie Tompkins, who works at the University of Montana, volunteered to read in Mrs. Grant’s class. Monday is a day for honoring everyone who struggles or ever has struggled for civil rights, she told them.
“What do you guys think civil rights are?”
A couple of students raised their hands, mentioning equal rights for people of different skin colors. Tompkins nudged them further.
“Do you think it extends to gender as well? And people of different ages?”
Another hand shot up.
“Civil means a community and rights means equal rights,” said 10-year-old Gabriella Morelli. “So I do think it extends to men and women and skin color.”
Tompkins stood at the front of the classroom and read “My Dream of Martin Luther King,” a book that chronicled key events in King’s life through one woman’s dream. It touched on topics like school segregation, police violence, protests and his assassination.
After each page, she turned the book toward the students to show them the pictures. The story ended with a group of people of all backgrounds throwing heavy bags into a pile. The bags contained their prejudice, hate, ignorance, violence and fear. The pile then exploded into a bright fire, illuminating words in the sky that read: “Everything good starts with a dream.”
With that image in mind, the kids began writing their poems.
A worksheet prompted them with the first half of a line. The students looked around, bounced their pencils on their desks, and tried to consider what peace means to them. After 15 minutes, some students volunteered to read their full poems aloud.
Gabriella Morelli read hers.
Peace is like a bird who greets the people in and out of world
Peace looks like water, it starts in one place and spreads
It sounds like a bubbly soda, and
A spinning hoola hoop
It can be soft or hard, but
Sometimes with rage.
Peace is always together.
About 50 of the students’ poems and drawings will be displayed at the public library and at several businesses downtown for First Friday on Feb. 2.