WHEN YOU'VE been around for only a few years, it's easy to get your cultural icons mixed up.
One day in early January, a third-grade classroom at Medfield Heights Elementary School in Baltimore had just received book-club order forms, and the students were making their selections.
"Now I can do a book report on King," said one boy, spotting a biography of one of his heroes.
Another little boy, white like the first, gazed at him in puzzlement. "But Elvis is the king," he said.
"The other kids looked at him as if he was from Mars," the principal, James R. Sasiadek, remembered with a laugh.
These days, all the children at Medfield know about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. And any of Rosalin Wilcox's second-graders could tell you that he was born in Atlanta on this date in 1929.
Since 1986, the third Monday in January has been observed as a national holiday in honor of Dr. King's birth, and many school districts are giving students that day off. One notable exception is the Baltimore City school system, because long before there was a national holiday, Baltimore teachers negotiated to have King's birth date celebrated as a citywide school holiday.
So the schools in Baltimore are closed today, but when visitors showed up at Wilcox's cheerful classroom one recent morning, King was on every mind. Not to mention on the classroom door, on the walls and on a bulletin board, where a hand-drawn portrait by a talented student named Morgan McMullen has the pride of place.
At the front of the room, Wilcox was holding her young audience rapt with a story about the civil rights leader. It was clear that this wasn't an entirely new story, though; the facts of King's life are second nature to these second-graders. When she paused meaningfully after reading about "the color of our . . ." a score of 7-year-old voices chimed in with "Skin!"
And when the teacher, herself an African American, asked her pupils for the name of King's most famous speech, both brown and white hands shot skyward.
Then came questions and answers, rapid-fire and enthusiastic.
"What was Dr. King's dream? Integration! Yes! What else? . . . What is the date of his birthday? January, January what? 15th! That's Wednesday! . . . Why did he get the Nobel Peace Prize? He was peaceful, yes. He helped people, very good! Who did he help? Chris? Nicole? He helped all Americans!"
"We recognize the birthday of Martin Luther King, and we make sure, basically, that the children know who he is, and what his major contributions were, and why they are getting out of school," Wilcox said later.
"They are going to be seeing a lot of TV programs relating to Dr. King, and they have home assignments where they have to write sentences about him. It's a constant exposure that they're getting from both the news media and the classroom."
However, lessons about notable black Americans are not set aside for King's birthday week, or even for Black History Month, Sasiadek said. "It's all part of our curriculum. We weave it in through everything," he said. "It's not like 'This is Monday, so we must be on page 239.' It's part of an ongoing thing, and everything relates to everything else."
Wilcox's lesson plan, for instance, includes civil rights instruction in social studies, reading, writing and art projects dealing with King, and the mastery of such meaty vocabulary words and concepts as "boycott," "non-violent," "segregation," "integration" and "assassination."
"Even the pre-K teachers provide that exposure," she said. "Each teacher builds upon the knowledge of the year before. We expose [the students] to information at a level they can understand, and then, as they go up in grade level, we take it a step further. We may discuss the relationship between King and Desmond Tutu, for example."
In Baltimore County schools, "Kids start learning about Dr. Martin Luther King from kindergarten and first grade all the way through," said spokesman Ric Bavaria. "One example of how this is done is our values education program, which stresses several values, including human worth and dignity, justice, the rule of law, and probably most important as it relates to Dr. King, respect for the rights of others. They are infused into the curriculum in all the grade levels in county public schools.
"His portrait hangs in most of our schools, and his message is all-pervasive," he said.
"While the national holiday may have made it more visible, his birthday has always been a special time in the Baltimore County public schools," Bavaria added. "We have assemblies, art exhibits, skits, evening activities to which parents are invited, and guest speakers.
"You haven't heard anything until you've heard a third-grader recite the 'I Have a Dream' speech. It's very stirring."
And at the same time elementary schoolers are being exposed to King's thoughts, Sasiadek pointed out, many of the white children are getting their first major black role model: their teacher.
As Wilcox circulated through the classroom with soft words of encouragement and advice, her charges got busy drawing pictures of the peaceful, integrated world that King had envisioned.
"He fights for peace and freedom," said Chris Hicks, a dark-skinned boy with long eyelashes and a toothy grin. "He wanted to have freedom for all people. He fought for fair laws and non-violence."
"I have to get back to my work now," he says, bending to his picture of people of all colors riding a bus.
Without civil rights, said Bonnie Crowther, "black people would have to sit on the back of the bus. Dr. King equaled them."
A few of the children, it must be admitted, took King's messages of equality for all colors quite seriously. To draw their people, they often used crayons in admittedly weird shades. Chris Gavin, for instance, sketched two friends, one yellow and one purple. "This one's Japanese, and this one's Chinese," he explained with a straight face.
Wilcox has noticed that several of her African-American students came to her class already well-educated by their parents about King. But all the children, black and white, have taken King's ideals to heart.
"Children are basically innocent. They are really not race-conscious, and they get along very well together," said Wilcox, who has spent much of her 19 years as a teacher in an integrated school in a largely white neighborhood. At age seven, she said, the children notice physical differences but have not, for the most part, absorbed any of society's negative messages concerning race.
"It's people all together," Kimberly Hooper said about her picture of a world populated by people of different hues. She bounced in her seat and explained: "We all work together and do stuff. This is a Chinese person, and a black person and an Indian."
And the black-and-white pals holding hands? "That's my friend Michelle and me. She's in the next class."
At the bottom of the page, Kim had written "I Love the King." Then she crossed out the "I" and substituted "We."