Saturday, September 18, 2010

Black or White

I can't remember if my home state, Maine, has the distinction of being the #1 least racially diverse state, or if it comes in a close second after Vermont. But, in either case, there weren't a lot of black kids in my town growing up. As far as I could tell, there was one family: the Grays, who lived down the street from me and were the only family I knew who lived in an apartment building. Richard was in my class, and he had a few siblings, one of whom I believe was my sister's age; occasionally we'd go down there and have playdates, even though we weren't particularly friends, I suppose because of the proximity of our houses (or maybe because my mom wanted me to have the maximum possible exposure to what little diversity there was around). When Richard and I were around eight or nine, the family moved away, and I don't know what happened to them after that.

The Grays were not the only poor family in town. Far from it. There used to be a navy base there; the Navy families were distinctly working-class. There are huge mobile home parks on the outskirts of town, and for a while I'd often go there for playdates with another friend. Still, in my memory, Richard seemed MORE different than the other kids, and he probably felt that way. Even my half-Asian classmate, who always seemed to be the smartest, most athletic, most artistic kid in school, felt different, so I'm sure Richard felt out of place.

Three years ago, I worked in a fancy private school in Brooklyn, and I had two black boys in my class. One was athletic and charming and friends with everyone, but the other had a lot of social issues. He had moved to Brooklyn two years prior during Hurricane Katrina, so already he came from a totally different place. He was the only kid at the school who lived in Queens, so even if he had friends, hanging out outside of school wasn't really an option. He was very smart, but watching him try to play with the other boys in the class was painful. He was incredibly awkward and had no clue how to befriend other kids, and would invariably end up alienating and annoying them through his misguided attempts, like knocking down big block towers they were constructing. The lone black girl also didn't have it easy; she came from a very traditional West Indian family, and had a tendency to wander off into different parts of the school and spend long periods of time in the bathroom. It was clear that she was on her way toward being labeled an oddball kid by her peers. I really felt for these kids, and I secretly thought that their parents were paying big bucks for a school that, in the end, wasn't such a great situation for them.

This year, I'm faced with a similar scenario. I have one black girl and one black boy in my class. I'm still sizing up the social scene, but it's already clear that the black boy is struggling. He had a bathroom accident the other day, and was too embarrassed to tell me. I had to pull the kids one by one to question them as we all struggled to ignore the overpowering smell. It was totally heartbreaking. (Luckily, I don't THINK the kids ever clued in to the fact that it was him. The nurse whisked him subtly away as soon as we figured out the source of the odor.)

It's really not good for anyone to have so little diversity -- the white kids would benefit as much as the black kids from being in a class where everyone has lots of examples of other kids who are different from them, as well as examples of kids who are the same as them (and by "different" and "the same" I mean in LOTS of senses, not just the color of their skin). It's just one of many reasons that the shocking segregation that exists in the vast majority of the schools in our country should end.

Unfortunately, there's nothing I can do to increase the diversity in my class, but I will try my best to celebrate what little diversity we have and to make all my kids feel like they are important parts of our community. How much of a difference I can really make in these kids' lives remains to be seen.

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