When I was in middle school, it was the norm for all of the kids to group themselves based on physical characteristics. Black kids sat with the other black kids. Hispanic and Latino kids had their own lunch tables. And the white kids had their specific groups, clubs, and areas of interest. Rarely the mold would be broken and an African American kid, for example, would be hanging with the white kids. It was likely in our young minds because of economic status.
Until recently, as a teacher now, I felt that unfortunately, times hadn’t changed much. In my opinion, it looked like the same scenario. I wanted my daughter to have a different experience, however. So, when it was time for pre-school her father and I sought out the most diverse school in the area. We wanted her to learn at a young age that there are so many different cultures to learn from. We wanted her to have playdates with kids who looked like her and kids who didn’t. It was important to us that she learned early in life that the world is made up of an enormous variety of people that she’d work with one day that she should learn to appreciate the beauty of diversity now.
Well, she had those playdates and attended a preschool that celebrated diversity and various ethnic and cultural differences. I still have pictures of her dancing with a friend who was dressed up for Mexican Independence Day. I remember attending a birthday party of a beautiful little girl whose family was from Pakistan. She loved her friends and they loved her. It gave me joy to witness this innocent connection she was developing.
Then before I knew it she was in middle school. It was as if I’d walked back in time to my own school’s cafeteria and hallways. All of her friends looked just like her. African-American. Now don’t get me wrong, she had a few friends that were of different races but only a few. It broke my heart when she said they separate and just don’t have anything in common with the white kids or she’d say “Mom, I don’t speak Spanish, what am I supposed to say to them?”
My heart broke! That was enough for me. One of the things I am lucky to do is take my children with me to the school I teach at. I didn’t always do this because I enjoyed being Ms. Cooke at one school and someone’s mom at another. But when it became financially necessary she came to school with me, as did her younger sister. I was determined not to let her go another year without forming bonds with people who didn’t look or have the same background as she did.
I left my school district after almost 20 years when I found the answer to my prayers. Last year I began driving to my new job to a nearby city as I became a middle school teacher after years of working in elementary schools. Her 8th grade year didn’t start off the way she imagined it. We would have some heated debates about this:
Her: “I will have no friends! I don’t know any of the teachers.”
Me: “This is a chance to make new connections. You have SnapChat and FaceTime. Your old friends aren’t going anywhere. When I was in school we had 3-way calling on a phone you shared with 5 other people in the same house. Count yourself lucky.”
Her: “You are ruining my life mom!”
Door slams. End scene.
This happened a lot the first few weeks of school.
Then something changed. She started to sit with a group of kids at lunch that all looked different. I saw her black hair and brown skin. Then I saw blue eyes and blond hair. Brown hair. Freckles. Some of the kids had African accents or Spanish accents. It was beautiful! I couldn’t have been happier.
The difference this time is, her father and I weren’t the ones making this happen. It was natural. These kids saw each other for their personalities and characteristics. They connected on deeper levels. I remember seeing a white boy braiding a black girl’s hair! I ran into a garbage can witnessing that.
One day as I was driving home Victoria said, “This is weird but good weird. I’ve never seen this before.” (Guess she doesn’t remember pre-school).
I said, “Yeah. It’s weird for me too. But I like it.”
She replied, “Me, too. I’m glad we moved.”
I was waiting for “Thanks mom. You are the best.” But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to push it.
So, why is this the case at one school but not the other? It’s because there is a conscience goal of the educators to help students develop real relationships with one another. Some schools do it through Capturing Kid’s Hearts and others use Project Positivity. My school incorporates the later and it is fantastic! To witness students from all walks of life show genuine kindness to one another is simply amazing. The teachers play a vital role. We cultivate these relationships while growing our own bonds with one another as well as with the students. It focuses on common personality traits and values one has for themselves and others.
I was at a district meeting once when a top school official said, “You can’t teach kids how to be nice to one another.”
I beg to differ. Respecting diversity while proudly displaying who you are is alive and well and I am blessed to witness it each day. This generation is going to show us how it’s done.