My little niece is almost a year old.

Her eyes are like big blue marbles, and are always focused on the thing her hands are reaching for. She garbles out a few syllables, smiles as she touches the stuffed lion, the dog’s ear, the pea hidden under the cabinets, the Christmas ornaments still hanging, the boxes beneath the table top. This is the way she learns about the world around her, a world that is new and strange and without limit or rule.

When she totters close to the edge of the couch, or when she tugs a little too hard on the dog’s ear, when she is about to put the dog’s rawhide chew in her mouth, my sister will say, “Dakota, no. No, Dakota.” Dakota perks her head in her mother’s direction and then obeys.

This is how we learn as children, by the guidance of our parents, our grandparents, our aunts and uncles. In most cases, it is a good way to learn, learning from those who have learned safe and healthy parameters of this world. We learn to walk and speak and think from the legacy that has gone before us.

We will teach her the rules to survive in this world. She must wait for the train on the platform, not on the track. She must work to get paid, and then pay for the goods she needs to survive. She must treat the neighbor, the man behind the counter at the store, and her teacher with certain behavior. In a way, we will teach her the location of the fences set up to keep her safe, to keep us together as a herd.

However, once she has the basics, our teaching will done.

We will not teach her how Grandpa Dade always gave out little boxes of black licorice on Christmas Eve and then sang carols to Grandma Sarah on Christmas morning, a tradition that Pa carried down to Ma. We will not teach her that it is a good thing to visit the shrine, toss her coins into the prayer ladder and listen to them clink on the way down, knowing that each clink is another prayer whispered for her ancestors. We will not tell her who she is going to marry, and that in the long run she would be happier with our choice based on calculation than any choosing of her own heart and feelings.

These things, if she wants them, are hers to choose. We will teach her the basics, where our fences were and then let her decide for herself if she wants to be a horse at all.

Not all little girls are so lucky, I am sure. That’s what I’m reminded of on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. To have a dream and be able to pursue it, is oftentimes a fortunate circumstance of birth. Little girls born during World War II. Little girls born under the railroad in Thailand. Little girls born to sheep herders in Mongolia. Little girls born in orphanages in Africa. I wonder if any of them have dreamed of driving a pink Cadillac or of becoming a dentist or winning American Idol.

© Seth Crossman