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
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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