Signs of Courage

            For Elsie Spring, nothing mattered more than writing.  She dreamed of one day becoming a writer, and prayed every day that her painstaking efforts would not be in vain and that there was some chance she would make it.  Sometimes she felt as if she were the most poetic, wonderful author ever.  On her bad days, Elsie dreaded that people would never see her for anything more than a fourteen-year-old eighth grade student who could not write her own name without messing it up.

            She sat on her bed and stared out her window.   Her notebook lay open but untouched in her lap.  For over thirty minutes she had been trying to write a decent beginning to her story, and could think of nothing.  "Maybe you just need a break from your writing for a while," her mother told her.

            She sighed.  Good authors did not need breaks, Elsie thought.  But ever since the time she dropped her short story in the hall and Douglas picked it up and read it out loud to everyone in her History class, she had not been able to write a single word let alone a whole sentence.  Douglas had read it complete with a high voice and silly faces and everyone had laughed.  Not at Douglas, at her story.

She sat for another hour feeling miserable about her writing.  Forget it, Elsie thought finally, as she remembered the other students' laughter, I'll never make a good enough author.  She closed her notebook and tossed it aside.

            The next day in History class, her teacher announced.  "Students, today we are going to watch a film."  She dimmed the lights in the classroom and turned on the television.  Dr. Martin Luther King appeared on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and began to speak.  "Five score years ago," he began, "a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation."  As Elsie watched and listened, she became completely lost in the words of Doctor King.  And when the final words rang out, "we are free at last," Elsie felt a lump in her throat.

            "Does that mean we are free to go home now?" Douglas sneered, followed by choruses of laughter.  Elsie wanted to hit him.

"Your assignment for Friday is to write an essay based on your opinion of this speech.  The winner's story will be published in the local paper," Mrs. Johnston said.  The bell rang and class was dismissed.         

            That evening, Elsie sat on her bed and stared out the window again, unable to write.  How could she express what the speech meant to her?  What if the other kids laughed?  Her mom poked her head in the door.  "What is wrong, Elsie?" she asked.  "You have been unhappy for days."

Elsie turned to her mom.  "I have to write an essay on what Martin Luther King's I Have A Dream speech meant to me."

"That does not sound so hard," her mother said.

"But I'm afraid of what other people will think," Elsie answered.

"Well, a lot of people did not like what Dr. King had to say either," her mom said, "but he said it anyway."

"Really?  But that was such a great speech, Mom," she said.  "And you know what?  Douglas thought it was funny!"

"There are a lot of Douglases in the world, Elsie, do not let them stop you from saying what you believe.  Elsie, you could write just as well as Dr. King himself, if you truly believed in what you were saying.  All Dr. King did was string the words together to explain what he felt, and then he had the courage to say them.  Those words were powerful.  They spoke for him, and for all African Americans who faced prejudice.  All you have to do, Elsie, is let your words speak for you, and say what you need to say.  If you have the courage to say what you really feel, then your writing will be your best.  I do not think that Douglas is capable of that," her mother said.

"Maybe you are right," Elsie said.

            Her mother left, and Elsie thought for a few minutes.  Then she realized that her mother had just rephrased exactly what Dr. King's words meant to her.  Feeling free and light, Elsie began to write.  Words have power, she wrote.  Power to change people's lives.

            The next day in History, before the bell, Douglas grabbed her paper.  "Sniff sniff!  I am crying, you guys!  I am so inspired!" he said, faking the most pathetic crying noises Elsie had ever heard.

            Elsie froze for a minute, until she remembered what her mother had said about Dr. King's words and courage.  "Douglas," she said to him, "If it were not for Dr. King, your best friend Christopher, sitting over there would be in a different school," she said.  "If Martin Luther King Jr. had not had the courage to write those words, and then stand in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and say them, then African Americans may have never gained their rights.  Too bad you cannot understand that."

            "Huh?" Douglas asked.  "English please!"

            "Douglas, get a vocabulary," someone said.  Now, the joke was on him, and not on Elsie.

            "Are you nervous about turning in your paper?" Elsie's friend, Diana asked. 

            Elsie smiled.  "I think I just got over it."