A Story for Black History Month
Second-graders Learn the Value of Diversity and Tolerance
By Dave Arnold
Black History Month began as "Negro History Week," created in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, noted African American historian, scholar, educator, and publisher. It became a month-long celebration in February 1976, chosen to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass (February 14, 1818) and Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809).
Our nation's schools and educators will be teaching their classes about the contribution Black people have made to our culture. Additionally, educators will be teaching about the oppression and struggle for civil rights Blacks have faced throughout history in America. Our schools will be reminded how offensive racism can be when a society judges diverse groups by the color of their skin. Being White, that’s where I learned about racism: school.
A Spectrum of Floral Colors
I will never forget the example my teacher made by using a flower to show the ignorance of racism and the value of equality. When I was in the second- grade, one of my classmates called my friend, Anthony, the “n” word. That hurt me because I know it hurt my friend. So I told my teacher, Mrs. Merrick, about the offense.
The next morning, as students entered her classroom, she gave each of us a flower. After we sat down, she pointed out how each flower had a different color, design, and fragrance. She told us how though each was distinct, they were each a beautiful creation in their own way.
She then explained how people were just like flowers, beautiful in their own way. And how hating a person who was different from us was as unreasonable as hating one these flowers because it was different from the others. She then instructed us to place our flowers in a vase that she had placed on a table.
Our Own United Nations
There it was: a United Nations of flowers as diverse and elegant as all of us children in that room. It was one of the most colorful and beautiful bouquets I had ever seen.
I was a little over 11-years-old on August 28, 1963 when Dr. Martin Luther King made his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C.
It remains in my mind as being the most powerful speech I’ve ever heard. Perhaps it was partially because I was at an impressionable age, but it was also because my school teachers taught me very well that racism was wrong. When Dr. King said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” it became my dream also.
A Dream Becomes Reality
My pessimism didn’t allow me to believe that the dream would ever become any more than just that -- a dream. However, last November, the voters of America chose a new leader not on the basis of color, wealth, or gender, but on the content of his character and abilities.
In his inaugural speech, President Barack Obama said in respect to his heritage, “I will never forget that in no other country on earth is my story even possible.” He then went on to speak about the subject of education and said, “This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of Black children and White children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can't learn; that those kids who don't look like us are somebody else's problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.”
Thank You, Mrs. Merrick
President Obama undoubtedly looks upon the children of America with the same eyes as did my second-grade teacher. It is our duty as educators to see that each one of those beautiful flowers does not wither or fade but grow to become a thriving part of the beautiful bouquet that we call the United States of America.
(Dave Arnold, a member of the Illinois Education Association, is a custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in Southern Illinois. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NEA or its affiliates.
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