Published September 22, 2010
Students today find a rainbow of diversity inside their schoolTHE OLYMPIAN
When I was in elementary school back in the 1950s and ’60s, most of us students looked pretty much alike. We were all the same color, and we lived in houses that were almost identical to each other. Most of our fathers worked in the same industry and most made about the same amount of money. Most of our mothers stayed home, although I remember a handful of latchkey kids whose mothers worked outside the home. We had one student in a wheelchair, and one student who spoke Spanish. We had one school bully — not counting the rest of us who participated in regular exclusionary bullying which went unrecognized and unchallenged by the adults. I don’t remember a single student of color joining our ranks until junior high school, when I engaged in my first civil rights debate with another student who argued that our one African-American classmate didn’t belong in our community. We studied American Indians as colorful historical characters, while never acknowledging Native Americans as our neighbors and contemporaries. Although my two best friends were Jewish, at our public school we celebrated Christmas and Easter, with little or no acknowledgement of other religious or cultural holiday traditions. I remember a classmate using the word “fairy” as a derogatory reference to another student, and when I mentioned this to my mother, she responded with an awkward explanation of the epithet that reflected the culture’s discomfort with homosexuality. The children at the elementary school where I now work are so much more fortunate than I was as a young student. They share classes, meals, and recess with students who come from a much wider spectrum of family income level, national origin, racial heritage, faith tradition, and family structure. Their classmates live in families headed by moms and dads, single parents, grandparents, two moms, two dads, aunts and uncles, and foster parents. Some enjoy family incomes higher than the national average, and some survive day to day staying overnight with friends or relatives or sleeping at community shelters. Children at our school speak more than 10 foreign languages, having moved recently from different countries, or growing up with hardworking immigrant parents who do all they can to give their children an opportunity for success. When our students walk in the doors of our school, they become part of a rainbow of colors from pale pink to deep brown. Most are somewhere in-between, many with parents who came together from different races and ethnicities. Our students share the lunch line with classmates who are vegetarian, or who avoid pork products for religious reasons. Many of our girls wear a hijab, or head scarf, and dress modestly in accordance with their religious tradition. When parents come into our school, they have the opportunity to interact with other parents who are part of this same diverse community. The focus on differences as played up in the media begins to melt away, and fear and suspicion of the “other” give way to familiarity and collegiality. In our school district, all the schools are focusing on school-wide behavioral expectations as an essential foundation for academic achievement. At my school, students know that they are expected to practice safety, act responsibly, work together and show respect. Every conversation we have about behavior at school comes back to these four expectations. When children work, play, and eat together in a diverse community, they grow used to seeing the similarities among them more than the differences. When they learn the values of mutual responsibility and respect, they have the opportunity to grow into responsible and respectful adults. Alice M. Curtis, a member of the Olympian Board of Contributors, is a school social worker and social justice advocate. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.