“Determination” was the word-of-the-day at Malcolm X Elementary School Monday, the eve of Cesar Chavez’s 82nd birthday.
First-graders raked and sifted compost in the school garden as part of Berkeley Unified School District’s week-long celebration of the legacy of the Mexican civil rights activist.
Although Cesar Chavez Day is a state holiday in California, K-12 schools remain open. Most schools recognize Chavez through service, teaching students to honor his spirit of hard work and unity.
All 16 Berkeley public schools have programs lined up for Tuesday, including special classroom projects, Latino speakers, parades and strawberry giveaways. Teachers will regale students with stories of Chavez’s efforts on behalf of farm workers and his campaign to abolish the use of pesticides in the growing of table grapes.
At Malcolm X, students told each other stories about Chavez during a gardening class.
“Let’s see, did you learn anything about this special man....” Even before Rivka Mason, the school’s gardening teacher, could finish her sentence, a tiny hand shot up.
“Cesar Chavez?,” asked Fay Reuber, a first-grader. “He helped our country because he wanted to stop brown people from getting hurt while they were picking grapes. The grapes had pesticides and their hands started bleeding.”
“And if he didn’t do that, we would probably be eating grapes with pesticides,” classmate Samantha Myers chimed in. “Pesticides are poison.”
Though students may have stumbled a bit in piecing together the fragments of Chavez’s life, it was easy to see they were having fun in the process.
“There are four different parts to Cesaar Chavez,” Mason said. “Courage, service, freedom and determination. Today we will learn about determination—can someone tell me what it means?”
“To terminate something?” asked a 6-year-old with a puzzled look on his face.
“It’s when you do something you want to do and don’t give up,” said Fay, getting a nod of approval from Mason.
“Farm work is tough," said Mason. "The farmers had to bend over to harvest the strawberries in the sun. They called it the diablo, or the devil. In honor of Cesar Chavez, we are going to be sifting compost for half a minute more than we do every day. We are going to be determined.”
As the day progressed students studied “bugology” (Mason’s word for the study of centipedes and roly-polys), harvested dragon carrots and made a snack for themselves from celery, broccoli and lettuce grown in the school garden.
While working on the Cesar Chavez strawberry bed, the students were momentarily distracted by a helicopter flying overhead.
“They are making sure we are using the electricity right,” said first-grader Owen Hayden-Joiner, looking up.
“They are making sure we teaching kids about Cesar Chavez,” said Mason smiling.