Monday, July 16, 2007

Guest Blogger: How 6 Year Olds Do (or Don't) See Color

by H. Rebecca Eaton, New York City Elementary School Teacher

What’s worth saying about race in my first grade classroom is what it isn’t. Race is not an object of discussion or discord in the classroom. Who shares magic markers is; and what matters is who plays with whom on the playground.

I have 23 six and seven year olds in my public school classroom overlooking West 77th Street. About half our kids are of Latino, African-American, and Asian descent—and among these are countless permutations: two children have one white and one black parent, one has a Japanese mother and German father, one black child has parents from the Caribbean. Half the class is Caucasian, some first generation immigrants, and some with grandparents born and raised in New York. Perhaps such a mix of children is rare in New York City, or rare anywhere in the Unites States, for that matter. But what seems rare to me is the amount to which race doesn’t matter in my classroom.

The kids play together and help each other with spelling words or ideas for stories. My students get upset when one child refuses to share the only light blue marker at the table; they argue with each other about what to build in the blocks area, and when someone knocks it down against the others’ will. Hurtful words are “I don’t want to be your friend anymore,” and these occur between some children and not others, regardless of race.

When I went to Hammond Elementary School, a yellow bus picked me up and drove past cornfields, a dairy plant, and houses and townhouses surrounded by little yards. My classes were overwhelmingly white and Christian. I remember Sumitro, the only Indian child in my class, because he was the only child with parents from India, a very foreign seeming place at the time. My father came in and played dreidel with us before Hanukkah every year; that way kids would know what Judaism was.

In sixth grade I entered Hammond Middle School, where my elementary school joined with the kids from Laurel. The first apartment building I ever visited was in Laurel; the one friend I made from the other elementary school lived in one. Laurel was a lot more pavement and a lot less farmland. It was also a lot more black and brown and a lot less white. What I remember about those early middle school years is that the kids from Hammond stuck together and the kids from Laurel stuck together.

Was our self-segregation a result of our earlier, separate educations? I remember feeling a bit overwhelmed at the beginning of middle school. For one, there were just more kids and, maybe also, it was the fact that the kids from the other school looked different. No matter that my parents taught me to treat everyone the same, regardless of race or class: this didn’t change the fact that I had spent the formative years of my life playing, arguing, and learning with mostly white kids.

Children’s thoughts will always be shaped by and reflective of the greater society in which they live. And our society remains divided. But when my students play together, argue together, learn together, regardless of color, they are learning to function with people who look and come from very different places. To echo Langston Hughes’ words—For America to be America again, for it to be America to those for whom it never was, we need, desperately, to learn to live together in those early years, when we can learn to ignore the color codes that abound in society.


Stefan said...

goood Job! ;)

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