L is for Lunch Counter


Taken from a child’s perspective Lunch Counter from the Greensboro Sit-Ins (National Museum of American History)

Your online “brand” is carefully curated. You put out information the way you want it to be shared. You try to shape the narrative, so to speak, of your life. This….is not on message. It is not a well organized insight into early childhood education or museums. It is messy, it is a work in progress and I’m not at all confident I’m on the right track. Still, since I’m guessing some of you may feel the same, I will put it out there. Maybe there will be something useful for you.


6:30am, I am bleary eyed and juggling the baby who has been up since 5. My 3.5 year old is quietly reading “S is for Smithsonian: America’s Museum Alphabet” next to me. He stops and reads aloud “L is for Lunch counter. Four students were silent in a protest they chose to be non-violent.” Then he looks at me and says “Mama, what does that MEAN?”

I freeze. This, this is one of those teachable moments. The kind you are supposed to use to prop open the door to learning and I feel like I’m going to blow it. I am trained in early childhood education and American history and I can’t think of a thing to say.

I shift the baby and clear my throat. “Well, a long time ago..” (No! Bad start! This WASN’T a long time ago. He needs to know this was just when his grandparents were little kids. It’s ok, we can get there. Don’t stop now.)

“You see how your skin is peach colored? There were people who thought that if your skin looked different, if it was brown or black, that you couldn’t be friends with people whose skin was white or peach. And that you shouldn’t go to the same schools or the same restaurants”

“WHAT!?” He interjects “That isn’t FAIR!”

“I agree! It isn’t fair. Just because their skin looks different doesn’t mean they aren’t kind or smart. Everyone should be able to do the same things and be friends with who they want to be. So, this lunch counter, you weren’t allowed to go to it if your skin was brown or black. These students, these kids, didn’t think that was right. They wanted to change it so they did something very brave. They went and sat down at the lunch counter. They didn’t yell, they didn’t push or hit, they just sat there. They wanted to make people think about the rule and how it wasn’t fair and that it should be changed.”

He was quiet for a moment “Tell me again Mama. Tell me what it means again.”

Two, three, four times I go through it. Haltingly each time as I try desperately to think of what I can say and how I can phrase it so it is age-appropriate but doesn’t minimize the truth. You can tell he is trying to process it as he asks me to “tell it again Mama.”

We pull out “All the Colors We Are” and learn about melanin and how it, and where our ancestors are from, can affect the tone of our skin. “So, the color of our skin doesn’t tell someone how smart or kind we are…it just shows how “busy” our melanin is and gives a clue about where our families came from a long time ago.”

Then it’s done, for now. He moves on to something else and I exhale and wonder if I’ve muddled things up. I fall back on the two resources I feel most comfortable with. I put out a call to friends for any picture books that talk about the Civil Rights Movement and I take him to the museum.

When we walk into American History, I ask “Do you want to see the lunch counter from your book?” His eyes light up “Yes!” and he pulls me up to the second floor. We sit down in front of it and he says “Tell me again Mama, what does it mean?” As best as I can I tell the story of the Greensboro sit-down.

“There it is” he says “There are the seats.”

It is a week later now and he is leafing through “Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins” by Carole Boston Weatherford. The book is a little dense, probably better for a child of 6 or 7, but we work our way through it slowly. Once, twice, three times we read it and go over what the words mean and tie it back to “L is for lunch counter.” He always points out the photo in the author’s note “Those are the boys Mama! The real boys!”

Later on he brings me the book again. “This is about the lunch counter Mama” I tell him that is true and ask him to tell me about the lunch counter.

“This is the lunch counter. If you were Black or light you couldn’t sit there and some people, like Justice Thurgood Marshall, didn’t think that was fair. So these boys sat there and sat and sat and sat.”


“They were hungry I guess?”

It’s a work in progress, for both of us.

This entry was posted in Early Childhood Education, Kids in Museums, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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