More Alike Than Different
Brought to your by The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
I knew it was coming. For two weeks, 9-year-old Billie, with his red hair and freckles, had been staring at me day after day. The time finally arrived when he boldly walked up to my desk and asked, "Ms. White [my maiden name], is your mother colored?"
I replied, "Yes, Billie, she is."
Next question, "Is your daddy colored?"
Another answer, "Yes, Billie, he is."
Now the big question, "Is your whole family colored?"
My final response, "Yes, my entire family is colored."
He walked away from my desk gasping, "Her whole family is!"
Later that evening when I shared this experience with my mother, she simply laughed and said, "Why, Nora, he probably thought that your color was a mistake, and being brown could not have happened to an entire family!"
About two months later, Jacky's parents walked into our class unannounced. Both of them took one look at me, smiled, and nodded in agreement with each other. I welcomed them and asked if I could be of service. The father immediately told me that Jacky had been rubbing cocoa on his arms and legs and told them that he wanted to look like his teacher -- me! We all laughed, and both parents now understood Jacky's reasoning.
Many similar episodes occurred during my first year of teaching (1963-64) in a special education classroom in the Midwest. The students and faculty had limited interaction with "people of color," and I had the unique opportunity of integrating the teaching staff. My arrival prompted a positive article in a large metropolitan newspaper. The article was entitled "Negro Teachers in White Schools."
That year prepared me and my students for some unforgettable human interrelationships. Now, as a seasoned college professor, I find myself reflecting often on that first school year, especially when I conduct workshops or discuss such topics as appreciating diversity or multiculturalism. Billie, Jacky, and their classmates were sincere in their efforts to know what made us different. In honest ways, my responses always focused on our likenesses, realizing that, yes, we were different, but we were more alike than different. Because these elementary school students were labeled as "educable mentally retarded," we emphasized that a difference is not necessarily a deficit.
During the early 1960s, the United States was experiencing a racial revolution, and there I was, with 15 students, sensibly and honestly discussing racial relations. I can vividly recall our class discussing how the many races in the United States made it like a giant 'salad.' We always spoke with pride when we discussed how each part of the salad can be identified and still contribute to the combined dish. We were definitely ahead of our time.
We learned together, played together, and shared our educational lives together. The mean age of those students is now 40 to 43, and I am proud to say that many of us have remained in touch. Last summer, in fact, one young man from that class arrived at my university; gave me a bear hug, and told me about his job and life.
When I hear of current cultural, racial, ethnic, gender, or religious hatred and unrest, I wish that we could have bottled the love and respect we had for each other in that school year more than 30 years ago. Those real, positive feelings have remained.
I think I can speak for that unforgettable class when I say each of them agrees that we would have fewer racial and ethnic problems if we would just simply remember that we are more alike than different.
Nora Martin is a Professor of Special Education at Eastern Michigan University. Martin's warmth, insight, and wit have her in great demand as a motivational speaker and consultant for local school districts and parent organizations.
This story first appeared in the ASCD book Teaching and Joy. Follow this link to find out how you can get your own copy of this inspirational book.
Teaching and Joy is also available as an audiobook on compact disk Follow this link to the ASCD Online Store for more information.