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What Kind of Nation Are We?

What direction do we want to move in? Tomorrow, in the United States, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. I want to share with you two short videos and three questions as a quick lesson to do with your family. (Once a teacher, always a teacher 🙂

The two videos:

Martin Luther King Jr. “To The Mountaintop” speech (final 2 min)

Bobby Kennedy announcing the death of Martin Luther King Jr. (6 min-edited)

The questions: Who Am I? Why Am I? How am I doing at living my purpose? Or in other words…at aligning my values with my daily actions?

The story:

Every year on this day, we watch these two videos with our kids and try to answer the questions, thanks to my work with the Character Formation Project. The three questions are posed by this Project to thousands of school children repeatedly to help them graduate with an intrinsic sense of who they are and what their purpose is in life.

But before I show our kids the videos, I give a little background information.

I tell them that the first video is of King giving the final speech of his life on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. It has come to be known as the “To the Mountaintop” speech. I show them only the last two minutes of his words. The police were trying to stop the marches for equal rights by issuing injunctions (restraining orders) against the protesters. King had been on the road for many weeks and was really tired, but he was asked to get out of bed and come to speak to the protesters to inspire them to keep going. Watch carefully. At the end of his remarks, you can see him stumble into the arms of a friend from exhaustion. More importantly, listen carefully. King had received many death threats. Notice how clear he is, almost clairvoyantly so, about the future he helped to shape.

Then, to prepare them to answer the three questions themselves, we practice with King.

Note: This is NOT typical conversation stuff in our home. They roll their eyes. They squirm and try to run away. But I feed them nachos and make them stay focused for 10 minutes, tops.

Who was Martin Luther King Jr.?

Luckily, they’ve studied him in school, so they come up with this: “He was a leader of the civil rights movement who believed that all human beings have equal value.”

What do you think King saw as his purpose in life? (Purpose = the answer to the question Why am I?)

They say: “His purpose was to stop racism, to make sure all people had equal rights.”

How is he doing at living his purpose in this moment?

“Amazing!” They say. “He doesn’t let anything stop him.”

Then it’s time to answer the three questions about ourselves. The idea behind this process is that to grow character, it’s not enough to tell children to be honest or to be brave with words, posters, and stickers. You have to actually help them to walk in the shoes of others, feel the struggle, and answer tough questions about who they are and why they are. They can’t do it at first. It takes practice. Gradually, they’ll uncover their unique place in the world.

I go first, to give an example.

Who am I? I am a writer, a teacher, a mother.

Why am I? My purpose is to inspire others to find their purpose, write their story, and use their voice.

How am I doing (at living my purpose)? Pretty well, I think. I get distracted easily, though.

Next, it’s their turn. I remind them that they don’t need to know the answers. The point is just to try thinking about the questions. Their answers will change over time. And that’s good. The kids’ answers:

Who am I? H: I am a girl, a dancer, a singer, a student. C: I don’t know. A skater? A son, a brother, too.

Why am I? (What is my purpose?) H: To make people happy by performing. C: To make the world more fun, to spread curiosity and fun, I think.

How am I doing? H: Pretty good! C: I’m awesome!

Finally, we watch the second video (6 min). This is Bobby Kennedy telling the people in a black neighborhood in Indianapolis that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. None of his aides wanted him to go; there was a real fear that the people would riot when they heard the news. He went anyway and gave a speech that is powerful and poignant. There were riots in every major city except Indianapolis.

“In this difficult time in the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in…We can move toward greater polarization…or we can make an effort, as King did, to understand and replace violence…with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.”

–Bobby Kennedy, April, 1968.

The words of both of these men seem especially important right now. I tell the kids, it’s easy to think that the United States was created hundreds of years ago and so its creation is complete. But just as you are a work in progress, the country is a work in progress. And now, fifty years since Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy asked these questions, it feels right to ask them again: What kind of nation is the United States? What direction do we want to move in? How can you help it move in that direction?

I would love to hear your thoughts and positive visions!

With love and special thanks to Gloo & the Character Formation Project,



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