America's Schools - They Must Be Carefully Taught

by Susan Brady Konig

At my daughterís pre-school itís time for all the children to learn that they are different from one another. Even though these kids are at that remarkable age when they are thoroughly color-blind, their teachers are spending a month emphasizing race, color, and background. The little tots are being taught in no uncertain terms that their hair is different, their skin is different, and that their parents come from different places. Itís Cultural Diversity Month.
I hadnít really given much thought to the ethnic and national backgrounds of Sarahís classmates. I can guarantee that Sarah, being two and a half years old, gave the subject absolutely no thought. Her teachers, however, had apparently given it quite a lot of thought. They sent a letter asking each parent to contribute to the cultural-awareness effort by "providing any information and/or material regarding your familyís cultural background. For example: favorite recipe or song."
All well and good, unless your culture isnít diverse enough.
The next day when I took Sarah to school, her teacher, Miss Laura, was anxious to get this Cultural Diversity show on the road and began the interrogation.
"Where are you and your husband from?" she cheerily demands.
"Weíre Americans," I reply--less, I must confess, out of patriotism than from sheer lack of coffee. It was barely 9 a.m.
"Yes, of course, but where are you from?" Miss Laura persisted.
Iím beginning to feel like a nightclub patron being badgered by a no-talent stand-up comic.
"Weíre native New Yorkers," I said.
"But where are your people from?"
"Well," I dive in with a sigh, "my family is originally Irish on both sides. My husbandís father was from Czechoslovakia and his mother is from the Bronx, but her grandparents were from the Ukraine."
"Can you cook Irish?"
"I could bring in potatoes and beer for the whole class."
Miss Laura doesnít get it.
"Look," I say, "weíre Americans. Our kids are Americans. We tell them about American history and George Washington and apple pie and all that stuff. If you want me to do something American, I can do that."
She is decidedly unexcited.
A few days later, Miss Laura tells me that she was trying to explain to Sarah that her dad is from Ireland.
"Wrong," I say, "but go on."
"Heís not from Ireland?"
"No," I sigh. "Heís from Queens. Iím from Ireland. I mean Iím Irish--that is, my great-grandparents were. Donít get me wrong, Iím proud of my heritage--but thatís entirely beside the point. I told you we tell Sarah sheís an American."
"Well, anyway," she smiles, "Sarah thinks her Daddyís from Iceland! Isnít that cute?"
Later in the month, Miss Laura admits that her class is not quite getting the whole skin-color thing.
"I tried to show them how we all have different skin," she chuckled. Apparently, little Henry is the only one who successfully grasped the concept. He now runs around the classroom announcing to anyone whoíll listen, "Iím white!"
Miss Laura asked the children what color her own skin was (she is a light-skinned Hispanic, which would make her skin color...what? Caramel? Mochaccino?). The kids opted for purple or orange.
"They looked at me like I was crazy!" Miss Laura said.
I just smiled.
The culmination of Cultural Diversity Month, the day when the parents come into class and join their children in a glorious celebration of multicultural disparity, finally arrived. As I entered the classroom, I saw a large collage on the wall depicting the earth, with all the childrenís names placed next to the country they are from. Next to my daughterís name it says "Ireland."
I politely remind Miss Laura that Sarah is, in fact, from America and suggest that, by insisting otherwise, she is confusing my daughter. She reluctantly changes Sarahís affiliation to USA. It will be the only one of its kind on the wall.
The mom from Brazil brings in a bunch of great music, and the whole class is doing the samba and running around in a conga line. Itís very cute. Then I get up to teach the children an indigenous folk tune from the culture of Sarahís people, passed down through the generations from her grandparents to her parents and now to Sarah--a song called "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
First I explain to the kids that Sarah was born right here in New York--and thatís in what country, Sarah?
Sarah looks at me and says, "France."
I look at Miss Laura, who just shrugs.
I stand there in my baseball cap and sing my song. The teacher tries to rush me off. I say, "Donít you want them to learn it?" They took long enough learning to samba! I am granted permission to sing it one more time. The kids join in on the "root, root, root" and the "1, 2, 3 strikes youíre out," but they can see their teacher isnít enthusiastic.
So now these sweet, innocent babies who thought they were all the same are becoming culturally aware.
Two little girls are touching each otherís hair and saying, "Your hair is blonde, just like mine."
Off to one side a little dark-haired girl stands alone, excluded. She looks confused as to what to do next. She knows sheís not blonde.
Sure, all children notice these things eventually, but, thanks to the concerted efforts of their teachers, these two- and three-year-olds are talking about things that separate rather than connect.
And Sarah only knows what she has been taught: Little Henry is white, her daddyís from Iceland, and New York is in France.

Mrs. Konig has been an editor of Seventeen, staff writer for the Washington Post, and contributor to Travel & Leisure, Ladiesí Home Journal, and Us.