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Schools of Thought: Embodying Racial Harmony in the Classroom

On Martin Luther King Day, remembering the advantages of a public-school—rather than day-school—education

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King at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. (AFP/Getty Images)

Because I like to torture myself and revisit decisions long made, I often wonder whether we should have sent the girls to Jewish day school. I fell madly in love with a school called Hannah Senesh, in Brooklyn, a school I felt wasn’t hyper-competitive, grimly obsessed with “excellence,” insular, self-satisfied, or attractive to the kind of parents I try to avoid in my daily life. But I also fell madly in love with a small public school in my neighborhood, with its mixed-age classrooms, emphasis on citizenship and community, and most of all, its diverse student body.

Jewish school. Non-Jewish school that reflects the makeup of the world we live in. Both are worth yearning for. Both teach values that are completely legitimate. And “both” is exactly what I can’t have. They’re mutually contradictory. (My mom once insisted that Jewish schools can be diverse and got annoyed when I said that “diversity” doesn’t mean a couple of gay parents and a Chinese girl named Shoshana, but I stand by that statement.)

I feel genuine grief for the fact that my girls can’t speak Hebrew as well as I did at their age. I quake at the idea that it’s my responsibility to teach them the prayers and songs I loved as a kid. If I’d sent them to Senesh, they wouldn’t even have to deal with the stuff I loathed in my own day-school education: a lack of historicity, disrespect for alternate points of view, anti-feminism. They’d be in smaller classes, with all the pedagogical yumminess that entails. I waffle endlessly and luxuriantly in the possibility that I’ve made the wrong choice.

And then a day like Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday rolls around, and all my ambivalence falls away.

Let’s look at how Maxie’s class, a combined pre-K and kindergarten, celebrates the holiday. They build a bus out of chairs, and each kid is assigned a shape: rectangle or circle. First the rectangles all have to sit at the back of the bus, and when they protest that this is not fair, or complain to a circle at the front of the bus, they are told that, nyah nyah, these are the rules. Then a little rectangle playing Rosa Parks refuses to move. And the rectangle police come. You know the story. Then everyone switches roles: the circles have to sit at the back, and the rectangles sit in front.

The next day, Maxie’s teacher Laurie tells them the actual story of the Montgomery bus boycott. “It’s important that we do the role-playing first, before we talk about the historical event,” she told me, “because I don’t want kids to feel ‘If I’m white, I’m the permanent bad guy, and if I’m black, I’m the permanent underdog.’” Laurie stresses that people from all over supported the Freedom Fighters. She talks about how the bus strike was really hard. It was rainy. It was cold. But eventually the mayor said that it was costing the city too much money, and he changed the law.

Laurie tells the story through the lens of saying no to unfairness, an idea that resonates with very young kids. “Most of them feel pretty powerless in the world,” she pointed out. “They can’t make their own breakfast. They can’t get dressed and go out by themselves.”

The message that people of all races can work together—a message that is reinforced by the actual fact of kids of all races learning together—is one I cling to. Maxie’s class really is a gorgeous mosaic (Inside Schools says that the school’s study body is 31 percent white, 22 percent black, 29 percent Latino, and 16 percent Asian), and the point is that they’re not just talking about unity and racial harmony; they’re embodying it. The notion that we can move beyond the pain of our respective pasts and create a just and united world is right there in the classroom.

Sometimes white parents (almost never black ones, educators say) insist that kids can’t see skin color. They tell teachers they don’t want their kids to learn about painful historical events or even talk about difference, because “everyone’s equal” and “under the skin, we’re all the same.” But research shows that no kids are colorblind. And a 2007 study of 17,000 families with kindergartners, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, found that nonwhite parents are about three times more likely to discuss race than white parents; 75 percent of the latter never, or almost never, talk about race. When we don’t talk about race, we give kids the message that it’s a shameful subject.

Oh, and then there’s the fact that all too often Jewish parents act like we have the monopoly on suffering. Who has room for another group’s inequities when we had the Holocaust? Game, set, match.

It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s not a suffering competition. We Jewish moms and dads might choose to reinforce the message that people of different backgrounds can work together by reading As Good as Anybody: Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom with our kids. Richard Michelson and Raul Colon’s book talks about the similarities between these two great men and how they marched together in 1965, before Mommy or Daddy were even born. But the book doesn’t minimize difference. That’s important.

And to me, Maxie’s school truly embodies Heschel’s values. As Heschel says in the book, “God did not make a world with just one color flower. We are all made in God’s image.”

Indeed. But a book is one thing; an entire school is another. I see the lessons my kid is learning not just from the curriculum but from the hidden curriculum, a term I’ve learned since starting this column. At moments like these, I feel OK with all the stuff she’s not getting.

So, nu, I’ll do more of the heavy lifting to ensure that she gets her Jew on at home. I’ll supplement what she learns in Hebrew school. I’ll send her to Jewish camps, where she will make lanyards and swap spit with other Jews and sing Halleluyah until her ears bleed. On days like today, the tradeoff feels worth it.

This morning, Maxie told me, “Today I want to play Rosa Parks.” Go for it, kid.


This article originally appeared on January 18, 2010.

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Great read. Inspiring and useful, especially to parents. Education is much more meaningful and useful (even some hidden curriculum) when we’re all working toward the same goals – freedom, equality, better communities, etc.

Jonathon says:

Sorry, but no, no and again no. The trade-off is absolutely not worth it. There’s plenty of opportunity for a kid to become assimilated later on. It’s much harder to avoid assimilation and to avoid it requires actual knowledge. We have Jewish schools because of that fact. This afternoon I was a member of a small panel at my kids’ (Orthodox) school, listening to high school students present the results of individual project they each pursued during the first semester. One girl, raised in a fairly secular but nonetheless tolerant home, said (as an aside to her presentation) “Thank G-d for [name of school].” This girl had already brought tears to my eyes with the depth of her sincerity. With those words, she clinched the rebuttal to your decision.

Janet G. says:

Very thoughtful article. Of course there is no one “right” choice– just the choice that is right for each person/parent and their family. Thanks for the children’s book recommendation on Heschel/King. We sponsor a Heschel/King commemorative program each year at our shul in Somerville and many folks do not know the connections of these two great leaders. Thanks!

I too continue to worry that I have sacrificed something by choosing public school. But I know that my kids will need to learn to maneuver in a world that would not be reflected in a day school setting. That is part of the hidden curriculum that my kids need as preparation for being members of a global, diverse community. Members whose strong Jewish identity is cultivated and encouraged at home, shul, JewCamp, etc.

Another great article!

Seth Chalmer says:

I’m just guessing, but I bet in paragraph 6, the author meant “Freedom RIDERS,” not “Freedom Fighters” as currently appears.

Poupic says:

I am a Jewish atheist and my daughters went to a Jewish Center for a while. In Israel if I had remained there instead of moved away by life circumstances I would have enjoyed Brit Millah’s, Bar Mitzvah’s in the future. The author makes the same mistake I made years ago. I was part of t he Jewish problem for our nation as the author is. By the way, MLK was and will remain my personal hero. His speeches and one letter where he describes anti- Zionism as anti- Semitism is an important reminder that once, long ago the leader of the US oppressed was our best friend and still is.

AW_from_EB says:

There is no reason a Jewish day school cannot impart the lessons of MLK Jr. Day. While there aren’t any African American children in my childrens’ classes, they spent substantial parts of several days in advance of MLK Jr. Day discussing and learning about him. In fact, my younger daughter was Rosa Parks this year in her 3rd grade play. The advantages that a day school education gives, including imparting a deep identity in them as Jews and members of a Jewish community, is simply not possible to get in public school supplemented with an after-school program.

PhillipNagle says:

No institution has been more harmful to blacks and black families than public schools. In Chicago (I live in a Chicago suburb) the public schools serve only the teachers and the bureaucracy). One of the costs of living in the city is sending one’s children to a private or parochial school. Rahm Emanuel sends his children to a private school, the same one that Obama sent his children to. MLK day is the day we should take a hard look at the public schools and consider what the alternatives are.

Michael says:

We wrestled with this, and ended up sending all three children to day school. Our concern was that they wouldn’t know how to function in “the real world” when they got to college and beyond. Two of my children went to elite private non-Jewish universities where they thrived…however, although those schools will insist that they are “diverse,” I will admit that they are nothing of the kind. My third child, though, is a senior at CUNY, which must be the most diverse university in the world. There she has close friends of every imaginable stripe, all without losing her strong Jewish identity or intense Jewish knowledge. One must know themselves before they can reach out to others, and supplementary after-school education has completely failed the Jewish people.

I went to the Heschel School and then to a Schechter school that no longer exists. Heschel’s MLK Day assembly was the most important one of the year. They reinforced over and over the importance of the civil rights movement. With Schechter, I was privledged to hear Loretta Scott King speak about her desire for MLK Day to be a day of service unlike other American holidays which stress going to the mall. Due to those two experiences, which were well over a decade ago, I spent part of today volunteering and being grateful for my education. So you can have them both.

herbcaen says:

Did you consider a Muslim school instead of a Jewish school? As the late Billy Carter said” there are a hell of a lot more Arabs than Jews”.. It would be a great way to get diversity in your family as well, and Arabic is more relevant than Hebrew. Also, you woudnt have to deal with a lack of historicity, disrespect for alternate points of view, anti-feminism.

LucidGal says:

As a convert, I don’t have any of the baggage my always-Jewish friends have, like fears of victimization and isolation. The harder I work to deepen my Jewish literacy, the more I get the “too Jewy” comment from some of them. When I started studying, I couldn’t believe they weren’t more fascinated with the religion they grew up with, ancient, rich and beautiful. Most of my close friends are Reform, way-Reform, or avowed Jewish atheists. I think R. Heschel, z”l, would say that voting with the Democrats and a vestigial taste for pickled herring aren’t enough, to get as Jewish an education as you can, then walk it out in the world.


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Schools of Thought: Embodying Racial Harmony in the Classroom

On Martin Luther King Day, remembering the advantages of a public-school—rather than day-school—education

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