Manhattan Country School Students See Civil Rights Battles Still to Be Fought

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Students at Manhattan Country School are establishing themselves as keepers of the Martin Luther King Jr. flame.

On Sunday, three students dazzled hundreds of people at the Brooklyn Museum by reading excerpts from their essays about civil rights, a tradition at Manhattan Country, a private school on East 96th Street.

And on Monday, the Martin Luther King's Birthday holiday, they braved the frigid temperatures to walk a self-designed freedom trail, stopping along the way for more eighth graders to read their essays aloud.

Manhattan Country School says its philosophy is "to ensure that our students have the knowledge, passion and confidence to become fully realized and caring members of a diverse global community, as well as conscientious inhabitants of the fragile planet we call home." It was founded in 1966, and since then, its Web site says, "social justice has driven the school's progressive public mission." Tuition is charged on a sliding scale based on a family's finances. Full tuition is $33,500 a year for lower grades and $36,500 for fifth to eighth grades.

Here are excerpts from several students' essays, a treat on M.L.K. Day. The essays have been lightly edited.

Freedom to Be Educated

By Altana Elings-Haynie

As much as Manhattan Country School has taught everyone who enters the building about equality, I have also learned to seek out places where that same equality is lacking. I have found this in education in America.

Equality allows everyone to have the same chance to receive a great education. If we don’t have education, what do we have? Nothing. A new American dream cannot be built if we don’t have the tools to do it. How can we expect to nurture a new generation of learners, and thinkers, and creators, if we cannot educate them? Since when is it O.K. to let a child’s education depend on where they live, unless they can afford the steep prices of private school?

... It is not O.K. when a school claims to be living M.L.K. Jr.’s dream, and the student body is 95 percent children of color and 5 percent white children.

... My Grandpa Elings was not even given the opportunity to finish high school. He told my mom, who always tells me, “if you get a good education, no one can take that away from you.”

A good education makes all the difference in a person’s life. And yet what of the United States government that spends billions of dollars on the public school system and cannot look past standardized test scores?

At Manhattan Country School, we don’t always know how lucky we are. Sliding scale tuition puts each and every one of us on equal ground. Equality is key in life. That is why I am fighting for those who are not equal in terms of education.

Freedom of Sexual Orientation

By Cara Eagan

Many kids who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender are usually bullied in school until the point where kids leave school or commit suicide. This is what these four boys faced.

Sept. 9, 2010: Billy Lucas, 15, of Greensburg, Ind., hanged himself from the rafters of his family's barn.

Sept. 19, 2010 : Seth Walsh, 13, of Tehachapi, Calif., hanged himself from a tree in his yard.

Sept. 22, 2010: Tyler Clementi, 18, a Rutgers University freshman, jumped off the George Washington Bridge in New York City.

Sept. 23, 2010: Asher Brown, 13, of Houston, Tex., shot himself in the head.

These four young men didn't know each other, but they did have something in common. They had been bullied at school, and one by one, they all apparently came to the same conclusion: If you're lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual, or thought to be, life just isn't worth living. Kids are bullied to the point where life is hopeless.

That’s how I felt at one point at my old school. In sixth grade I was bullied to the point where I was not sure if I could even walk into the middle school ever again. I know how it feels to be picked on because you might not fit in or, as I say, because you’re special.

... Just know that your not alone. I know what it’s like and that’s why it’s my personal goal to fight for this to the end. The world must know that bullying and discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals is not O.K. Action must be taken, the voices must be heard.

An Educated World

By Emma Morgan-Bennett

These days, education is everything. Without an education many opportunities are lost. The modern world knows that education equals success, yet we still deny so many their educations, and therefore we deny them opportunity as well.

... For developing countries, education is necessary for survival. The undereducated children of the world must receive lessons for their future. By learning to add and subtract, they can learn how to count money, a vital tool in owning a business. By learning how to read and write they can start on the path of receiving their degrees and becoming educated citizens.

Through these basic education necessities they will learn how to pave a road to a good future.

Yet education does not stop at numbers and letters. After receiving their lessons they must educate themselves in citizenship. They, and we, must learn how to make our own judgments in order to pave a road for our future.

Even though reading and mathematics are the start of an education, they are not the finish. An education is not finished until you have combined all you have learned and turned them into an ethical path.

Equality for Transgender People

By H.G. Foulke-Hill

I speak to you today about transgender identity and how the world should view us as equal individuals. I am a transgender person myself. Transgender is a word that describes a person who is born as one gender but feels like the other.

Some transgender people change their biological gender identity to match the way they feel about themselves. The reason I am drawing your attention to this issue is because I strongly believe in the equal recognition of transgender people.

As Martin Luther King says, “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

He goes on to explain that one person can’t accept others until they accept themselves. After we have accepted ourselves we can learn to accept others.

... It would be better if people just knew that there is no reason to discriminate, but that’s not how the world works or has ever worked. But the people of the world have always worked to make change and that is just what I am doing today. Making a difference by expressing my opinion on a subject that means very much to me.

The Rights of Immigrants

By Jamie Oliver

I will be speaking about another dangerous journey, which many people embark on in the 21st century. Unlike the slaves who ran away from America, I am speaking about those who cross into the United States seeking better lives. These people are illegal immigrants. They travel on dangerous journeys, crossing the border from Mexico to the United States. Despite the risk of death and the other dangers that illegal immigrants face, they go in hope of a better life.

... They are driven by the idea of money. However, once these immigrants finally reach the United States, they cannot rest in peace. They live a life of secrecy.

... Most illegal immigrants take hard, low-paying jobs in the United States. They suffer under strict laws, which they can’t vote against. There are various challenges and ways that illegal immigrants suffer.

Some of these undocumented immigrants are children who arrive in the United States. These children, some taken by their family, others sent to friends or relatives, come to the United States illegally.

These illegal immigrants are raised as Americans. Some forget their native tongues. Others maintain their languages and cultures. But either way, they have to live in fear of being deported to a place far away from their home, America.

Free to Be Safe

By Kai Williams

Throughout my life, I've heard the phrase "silence is golden" hundreds of times. Silence can be glorious, calming, a state of rest and peace and happiness. There are times when no words must be spoken to convey a message, when the world is illuminated by the quiet. But there are other times, other instances, when silence can be a toxin, seeping into minds and souls, murdering its victim on the inside.

Rae Ann Spence, an eighth grader, suffered from the thick and pungent silence that is an inevitable part of fear. She didn't speak to a soul about the torment her boyfriend was putting her through, until he punched her repeatedly in the middle of class, and her mother took Rae Ann far away from the danger of her eighth-grade boyfriend -- a boy who would later stab his next girlfriend to death in the hallway of their school.

If there are any who question Rae Ann's sense, if there are any who wonder why she did not speak up, place yourself in her shoes. She was a young girl, who probably learned from the belief that our society, a society obsessed with body image and dependence, forces upon all of her gender and age. That one day she'd meet a boy who'd love her unconditionally, and that she'd have to love him back in all possible ways, forgive him of his missteps, and change him forever.

... Often, victims of domestic violence push themselves into a fevered doubt, a darkness, where they spin excuses for their abusers. Based on reports from 10 different countries, between 55 percent and 95 percent of women who had been physically abused by their partners have never contacted non-governmental organizations, shelters, or the police for help. "He or she loves me" "I deserved it" and "He or She didn't mean it" are a few excuses victims make to convince themselves that what is happening is normal and O.K. But they are wrong. Because love, in any shape or color, cannot possibly constitute bruises, cuts, scrapes. Love is not taking a blow to the face because "they don't mean it." Love is not violence. And mostly, love is not keeping silent to protect your abuser.

... Silence and shame must come to an end. I hope those who are forced into silence, find the courage to pull themselves up and reach for help. It may seem they are stumbling blindly, but with a call to the police or a talk with a trusted friend, the light of freedom may rain down. I hope those who are shamed into silence, embarrassed into silence, know that they are never alone and that they are never at fault. That it is the perpetrators of this heinous crime who should be ashamed. It is the perpetrators that channel their anger into a fist, and beat it against a target who loves and trusts them, who should be frightened. It is my greatest hope that one day, those who lay battered on the floor will be free of their tormentors, that they will see their light, that they will raise the voices they were born with and that they will live, without fear or shame, out loud.