Teaching My 4 Year Old About Dr. King

Last night at dinner, Penelope told us she’s off from school Monday because it’s Malu King Day. We worked with her a few times, and were able to get her to pronounce his name correctly by saying, “It’s Martin, like Martin Kratt from the Kratt Brothers.” Hey, whatever works!

She said: “He lived a long time ago. Before anyone was born.” When I told her I was three when Dr. King died, well, she looked at me like I was 263 years old. And while I may look that age by the time Friday night rolls around, I certainly don’t feel it. Penelope wanted to see Dr. King, so I uploaded a slice of a YouTube video of his “I Have a Dream Speech.” The video lasted about 90 seconds, which I figured was about the attention span of a four year old, but her eyes were glued to the screen. When it finished she wanted to watch another video (she pointed to a postage-stamp-sized square of Dr. King’s final speech in Memphis).

Dr. King's final speech.

We listened to Dr. King’s soaring words. : “And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around . . .”

“Dogs?” Penelope turned around and looked up at me.

I hesitated. “Well, you know how there’s that scary dog down the corner? He means dogs like that.”

Her head swiveled back to the video. When the speech ended, the video flashed to a grainy black-and-white photograph of a motel balcony in Memphis. Then the CBS eye and words “Special Report” flashed on screen. A smooth-skinned Dan Rather announced that Martin Luther King had been killed. I knew what was coming next.

“Why did he die, Papa?”

I struggle when it comes to explaining to her the darker hours of our history and inhumanity. Our nation’s history sparkles with great moments, but is also littered with great tragedies. I wonder, what is the correct age to start teaching your child about these darker moments. Any ideas?

For now I want my little girl to enjoy her innocence of the meanness that lurks in this world. “It was a terrible thing that happened, Pop Tart. And someday, when you’re a bigger girl, we’ll talk about it.”

She nodded, and turned back to the computer just as the screen faded to black.

After dinner we drove to Buckingham Friends meeting to hear the St. Thomas Gospel Choir perform. As we settled onto the stiff wooden benches of the meetinghouse, I glanced around the room. The choir members, dressed in white shirts and jeans, were huddled on the far side of the room, perhaps in prayer or in preparation for their performance. The musicians were tuning their instruments. Friends greeted one another, and several children giggled as they clambered among the back benches. Penelope watched them wistfully, and asked if she could join them. We agreed, and told her it would be time to return when the choir members took their places to sing. She hesitated a moment, suddenly uncharacteristically shy, but Bern coaxed her. “Don’t be afraid, go ahead.”

It didn’t take long. Within minutes, she was giggling right along with two other children: a blond-haired, blue-eyed girl; an African-American toddler; and my Asian daughter.

The perfect image to remember Dr. King’s legacy.

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Having a Merry Lizard Christmas

Just before Christmas, Penelope sprawled herself across the family room floor and wrote out her wish list to Santa Claus. The list was seven pages long which was quite an accomplishment since she only asked for six things. I think that’s about right for someone who’s four years old. My favorite line in her “Dear Santa” letter was : “I’ve been very good this year unless I was bad.” When she finished, we stuffed the letter in a snow-white over sized envelope and shipped it off to the North Pole.

Perhaps the most curious item on her list was a stuffed monitor lizard. She’s grown rather fond these past few months of a book about reptiles, and one page features an illustration of a monitor lizard preparing to feast upon a nest of crocodile eggs. So come Christmas morning, Penelope clambered down the stairs to discover a foot-long stuffed monitor lizard perched precariously atop the manger. (I bet you didn’t know a monitor lizard was present at the birth of the baby Jesus!)

The monitor lizard has quickly become the king of the animal farm that is Penelope’s bed. Last night, when I tip-toed into her bedroom to make sure she was still breathing — sorry, that’s a joke for a few folks — I saw Penelope softly snoring with a bare leg sticking out from under a blanket and a stuffed monitor lizard hugged tightly against her chest. I’m anticipating the soon-to-come day when I open the refrigerator to find the lizard sitting atop the egg bin staring back at me as if I’ve just interrupted a private moment.

I doubt there are many four-year-old girls who sleep with a monitor lizard. Hopefully, she’ll get that out of her system while she’s still a kid.

I think her fascination with animals of all stripes and textures comes from three sources. First are the numerous animal books she has on everything from dogs to dinosaurs. I think our two beagles — Sammi and Rudy — are also partly responsible for her becoming an animal lover. And the feeling is mutual, although I suspect the dogs love Penelope because she has a habit of leaving half-eaten cheese sticks on the coffee table. Lastly, Penelope is addicted to “Wild Kratts” on PBS Kids. The show starts with two brothers (Martin and Chris) who talk about some critter — be it an aardvark or a gecko. Then they morph into cartoon characters to rescue an animal in trouble. She’s probably watched all 20-some-odd episodes multiple times. Yesterday at the park she insisted on calling some little boy she met Chris. (His name was Kenny.)

As I watch all this I wonder if it means anything for her future. Will she become a veterinarian or a zoologist and help animals? Will she want to work at an animal shelter? Or is she just on her way to becoming a crazy cat lady?

Well, I doubt that last one. But I can’t help wondering if the clues about her future are already in place. But, then again, why rush things? In my heart I know it’s best just to enjoy a quiet moment watching a snoring child cradling her stuffed monitor lizard. These moments don’t last forever.

Cussing Around the Kid

I attended my first Major League baseball game when I was 8 years old. The New York Mets played the Houston Astros, and naturally, being the Mets, they lost 7-4.

There’s something about a boy seeing his first live baseball game that leaves an indelible impression. I remember so much from that day: My father and I and the neighborhood kids sitting in the sun-drenched upper deck of Shea Stadium on a Wednesday afternoon; the thrill of watching Ed Kranepool hit a home run into the right-field bullpen and the disappointment that Willie Mays didn’t play; getting home before sundown, grabbing my freshly oiled Rusty Staub mitt and playing three-fly-six in Bobby Westerfield’s backyard.

That first trip to Queens in August of 1972 suckered me into becoming a Mets fan, and I’ve seen a lot of losing ever since. In hindsight, I consider my father’s prodding to support National League baseball in New York a peculiar form of child abuse.

I suffered a great deal as a kid from watching the Mets trade Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver to Mettle. (The Mets actually ran a contest to name the 1979 Mets mascot — a mule — and I entered. Really, I did. Not surprisingly, my suggestion of M. Donald Grant didn’t win.)

These days I don’t watch much baseball. I just don’t have the time anymore to see a bunch of guys scratch and spit for hours on end. If I wanted to do that, I could always look up my freshman-year college roommates.

But one particular Sunday, while waiting to drive to the local pool and gun club, I flipped on the TV and a Mets game. Naturally, being the Mets, they were losing. And, within minutes, the manager made some idiotic decision. Then I did something all guys do when watching sports on television: I started yelling at the set. It’s a DNA/reflex/guy thing. And somewhere in my brief rant I may have called Mets manager Jerry Manuel a few . . . ummm . . . inappropriate names. Nothing too terrible: stupid, pinhead, jackass. There may have been a dipshit thrown in there; I can’t remember. Unfortunately, Penelope the parrot was playing nearby and started immediately repeating those words.

I knew I must do something. Horrible visions floated in my head of Penelope going to preschool Monday morning and calling her teacher a jackass. So, I did what any dumba. . . — quick-thinking Papa and Mets fan would do: I spent the next 20 minutes trying to persuade Penelope she should reserve those names for the “old man in the blue baseball uniform.”

At first, I wasn’t sure if she bought it. But I felt better the other day when I was driving the car, and after getting cut-off, proceeded to call the other driver a pinhead.

“Papa!” I heard from the backseat. “Baseball man?!”

“Yes, Pop Tart, that’s right! The baseball man just cut me off!”

{Gratuitious plug time: I’ll be among the authors signing copies of the local history book “East Amwell” from the Images of America series on Sunday, Sept. 19 at the Unionville Vineyards in East Amwell from 2 to 5 p.m. A portion of the proceeds of books sold there will benefit the East Amwell Historical Society. If you’re looking for something fun to do, please come, buy some wine and buy a book. We’ll also be at the Borders Books in Flemington on Oct 2 from 1 to 3 p.m. Last week, at a local Harvest Fest we signed and sold close to 80 copies. Finally, in my last shameless plug (all for the noble cause of preserving local history) I will be doing an in-studio interview on WDVR FM 89.7 Monday, Oct.  18 at 4 p.m. about this book.}