A few years ago, First Lady Michelle Obama was criticized for revealing some not-so-flattering details about her husband, Barack: He snores. His morning breath is “stinky.” He never picks up his dirty socks. To those who said this was too much information about the president of the United States, Mrs. Obama had an answer. “Barack is very much human,” she told Glamour magazine, “so let’s not deify him.” Putting somebody on a pedestal, she said, is only preparation for knocking him from it.
This episode came back to me as I read the script for Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, which makes its Broadway debut this week. Her play re-imagines the last 24 hours in the life of Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in April 1968 in Memphis. Hall also forces those in the audience to re-examine their view of King, whose larger-than-life image now stands on Washington’s National Mall. As the play opens, King has just returned to the Lorraine Motel after giving one of the most important—and prescient—speeches of his life. His bladder is full. He’s bone-tired. He just wants some coffee and a smoke. Later, it’s clear that he fully appreciates a pretty woman. In other words, he is “just a man.” But he helped to change a nation.
What can students learn from Hall’s powerful, human portrait of King? Teaching Tolerance examines this in a teaching guide, which was developed for high school and college students who will see or have seen the production. Its three lessons help students answer the following questions: What do we look for in our leaders? What qualities did King have that allowed him to lead a movement that affects our lives even today? And what can we do to make sure his work continues through our own actions?
It’s important for students to learn about the people—well-known and unknown—whose march for civil rights was toward a goal of “justice for all.” It’s just as important for them to realize that they can be among them—even if they don’t pick up their socks.
Koenig is a freelance education writer and editor living in Texas. She is the author of this teaching guide.