A School Visit

The high school I visited in the Washington DC area isn't one of the United States' most glamorous or impressive schools to look at, either on the outside or inside. In fact, the building itself looks like an old red brick apartment house! The school prides itself on its diversity, and they even have a banner speaking of that diversity over a set of doors (I don't know what was on the other side of those doors). I cringed, however, when I saw the painting on the banner: 4 hands in a circle...1 white, 1 black--and yes, I mean black vs. any variant shade--one bright yellow, and one bright red. Obviously, we're not all any of those shades, and I should hope **none** of us are precisely the hues of those paints used in that banner! But I recognized the genuine thought and effort, and I bit my tongue.

My first class visit at the school was an Advanced Placement History Class, and I was extremely impressed with the discourse in the room! We talked primarily about the need to eliminate the hyphen in cultural identities (not the cultures, just the hyphen), and we had a fairly intense conversation about cultural identification in general. Some kids in the class couldn't see the need to identify with a culture; others were possessively proud. The kids questioned the need for cultural identification since they perceived these things as steps toward WWII Germany. The dialogue was stimulating, needless to say!

In the next period, several classes gathered in the auditorium, and here's where the real fun began! ;-) One teacher was attempting to play the game of pc (political correctness, not the computer! ;-) ), and what followed was amazing and wonderful. The teacher wanted to ignore--on a conscious level--all cultures in his classes. By cultures here, I'm referring to race, ethnic group, heritage, religion, and so on. For the sake of simplicity, I'll call the teacher Mr. X.

Mr. X confronted me, asking what it mattered how each student was labeled. He didn't ask how each student chose to identify him/herself. He drew his own conclusions at the same time he said, "I don't see color."

I shuddered because I knew what was coming next as he told of his pride at visiting the Lincoln Memorial with his best friend, who's black, he said. When I asked him why he said his friend was black if he didn't see color, he replied, "I'm playing Devil's Advocate. You don't mind, right? I have Hispanic students, black students, Asians, Jews..." The list was endless, but he never answered the question. Instead, he threw out a young man who had been chattering like a whispering magpie.

I asked Mr. X whether he'd ever asked his students how they felt about the labels he was giving his classes, then I looked back at the students and asked, "How do you feel about these names? Would you prefer Hispanic or Latino, for instance?" And my eyes fell on one young man who was sitting fairly close to Mr. X. I watched as the young student responded, "Latino."

Mr. X ignored the students' replies, and said, "I'm in tight with my students. We're all buddies, right?" Then, looking at the same student I'd watched, he made a comment which escapes me now, and he called the student "Hispanic".

"Mr. X," I called out, "didn't you see he prefers to be culturally identified as Latino?" And again, the teacher replied, "Oh it doesn't matter. We're buddies!" Mr. X didn't notice the student he'd kicked out, wander back in.

Suddenly, another student in the auditorium stood up and said, "No, Mr. X, we're not. We keep our mouths shut because you hold the power over our grades."

At that moment, Mr. X spotted the student who had returned to his seat. The student began to apologize profusely to me, and Mr. X suddenly demanded, "Who let this student back in?" And again, the student was dismissed. I later learned that the apologetic young man who was kicked out twice, is the son of Mayor Barry of Washington.

What was especially ironic was my realization that this particular teacher had actually been the one who started the ball rolling for me to visit the school!

It's 2 a.m., nearly a week after the experience, and I sit here now, wondering whether Mr. X learned anything from the day. Other thoughts cross my mind as I remember the beauty of those faces painting the mosaic in each of the rooms I visited... Another student stood up and said he had experienced prejudice against race on the swim team. We spoke about the reasons why he felt the incident had been prejudice against race vs. age or grade discrimination, and we concluded that it did appear that it was at least *linked* to racial concerns.

The students were delightfully receptive, as were most of the teachers that day, but Mr. X taught me an important lesson: even in the best environment, we're likely to find people like him. They won't always listen, hear, or want to know, but their presence and their mouths will open the door to give them new perceptions of the world.

I may be an idealist, but I believe that first step begins with each and every one of us.

Michelle Young
co-author, Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow: Meeting the Challenge of Our Multicultural America & Beyond (Caddo Gap Press, 1996);Multicultural Moments from Around the World_(Caddo Gap Press, 1997); author, Daydream: To Our Mosaic World, a K-12 series in progress; TIPS online multicultural columnist; SRHS online host of Multicultural Trivia Trek