Few people can say they’ve walked the halls of the White House and met the president. Fewer still can say they’ve given him a hug while receiving praise.
But 18 second-graders from Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School in Roxbury can say all of the above.
Last year, they delivered Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream Speech” before President Obama. And that gives them a special perspective on the president, who on Monday will take the oath of office for a second time — a man whose presidency and reelection they followed with unusual interest, given they’re still a good decade away from being old enough to vote.
“He makes the right rules.”
“He is nice to people.”
“He makes things cheap.”
“If it weren’t for Obama, all the poor people would die by now because they wouldn’t have no food to eat.”
The students were first-graders in Darlene White-Dottin’s class when they visited the White House. White-Dottin has taught a truncated version of King’s speech for nearly two decades as a way to improve vocabulary and instill a sense of history in her young students.
Governor Deval Patrick first heard White-Dottin’s students deliver King’s speech — and define the words — during a visit to Orchard Gardens. He was so impressed by the performance and by the learning gains of all students at the school that he arranged the trip to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Orchard Gardens had consistently been rated among the lowest-performing schools in the state until it was designated a “turnaround school.” That designation helped it get extra resources to extend the school day and hire more experienced teachers, White-Dottin among them.
She has been a teacher for 29 years, three of them at Orchard Gardens. King’s speech, she said, helps students build their vocabulary as they learn the meaning of words like brotherhood, justice, oppression, and creed. Students must do more than simply memorize words from a page, she said. They must comprehend the meaning and history behind them.
“If they don’t ever remember anything else, if they don’t remember my name, I want them to take this history on and get an understanding that the way we are in this building and going to the movies and drinking from a water fountain, it has not [always] been like that,” White-Dottin said.
“I told them, ‘You know a lot. You have to keep it.’ ”
“Martin Luther King was trying to tell us that everybody could be friends and that’s the reason why we did the speech,” 8-year-old Ajensy Rosario explained. “Black people and white people could all be together even if they’re not the same skin color.”
Seven of White-Dottin’s former students sat together on the carpet in their second-grade class after a recent composition lesson and recalled the legacy of the man who dreamed that children would one day live in a nation where they would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. “He helped us be together,” Ajensy said.
King taught us “that we could be nice and not be rude,” Kierra Thompson said.
They also remember in vivid detail that Tuesday last February when they visited the White House, which they said was beautiful and filled with gold, chocolate, and water.
The one-day, whirlwind field trip started before dawn and included a special peek inside the airplane’s cockpit and a visit to the “gigantic” Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, where they practiced the speech before a small group of tourists.
When they arrived at the White House, for their afternoon audience with the president, they were greeted with: “‘Who are you guys?’ And then we said, ‘We’re from Orchard Gardens and we’re gonna sing to the president, sing the Martin Luther King speech,’ ” Ajensy remembered.
In those moments before the president walked into the Diplomatic Reception Room, the students recalled, they felt “excited, . . . overjoyed, . . . thrilled, . . . lucky.”
They also felt nervous.
“I was about to use the bathroom on myself,” Elianie Morales said. “Me too,” interrupted 7-year-old Aveley Kissi.
And when the president saw Aveley squirming in the corner and asked if she needed to use the restroom, he served as her personal escort. “Aveley got to hold the president’s hand!” 8-year-old Tanish Whiteside said.
“The bathroom,” Aveley whispered, “had a chandelier in it. It looked like I was in heaven.”
But these boys and girls weren’t there to gawk at chandeliers. They came to deliver a message. Eighteen little voices began in unison:
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ ”
They continued their rendition for 128 words, ending with a call for hope. It is a speech whose meaning they remember, even if the exact words are a little foggy.Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.