Monday, November 10, 2008

The whole world looks upon the sight

I spent several of my primary-school years at Wing Luke Elementary in south Seattle, a diverse school in a high-poverty neighborhood. My mother had enrolled me there both for the lure of a magnet program for gifted kids, and because we had volunteered for Seattle's pilot school-desegregation program, a year before it became mandatory. (For what it's worth, Seattle was one of the only large cities in the nation to desegregate its schools without a court order.) Starting in the second grade, I took a bus 45 minutes each way from a north-end neighborhood that was generally whiter and more affluent (though we weren't the latter).

The bus ride was tedious, but I liked the school. Wing Luke was a nearly-new building at the time, a modern school laid out in an open-classroom format. Multiple grades were grouped together in four wings of the building known as "pods;" the giant rooms could be roughly sectioned off with bookcases and folding screens, for grade-appropriate instruction in math and spelling, but then they'd bring us all together, first through fourth graders, for things like movies and art projects and field trips. I remember it being a particularly vivid and engaging atmosphere. Loud, maybe. Very loud. But fun.

I had--or shared--several wonderful teachers during my Wing Luke years, teachers who brought a multicultural perspective to their lesson plans before that term had been invented. They did this very cleverly, through two main channels: holidays, and food. So: for Hanukkah, Mrs. Eskenazi taught us to gamble for peanuts with a dreidel, and also plugged in a Harvest Gold electric skillet at the front of the room and made approximately a hundred potato latkes. Brave woman. On Chinese New Year, Mrs. Chinn arranged to have a lion dance team come in, weaving through the little desks, and gave us each White Rabbit candy and a red envelope with a new 1978 penny inside. For Boys' and Girls' Day, in Japan, we made fish kites and ate seaweed crackers from Uwajimaya. If you are guessing that these lessons appealed to my essential nature, you are correct: parties, presents, and special foods? Yes, please! Sign me up. I remember going home to my mother and, on more than one occasion, demanding to know why everyone didn't celebrate everything. We'd been missing out, on these holidays I'd never even heard of! I had been deprived!

The layout of the pod classrooms allowed our teachers to impart another significant lesson, when we studied the Civil Rights movement that year. Our classroom had two drinking fountains; one had good water pressure and one, for whatever reason, was leaky and slow, its handle difficult to turn. There were also two exterior doors: one led directly to the playground, for maximum recess-time capitalization, while the other was on the far side of the room, on the street side of the school. If you left through that door, you had to walk the long way around the building to get to the jungle gym and hopscotch grids, the window in the gymnasium where they dispensed jump ropes and kickballs first come, first served.

So. For a week, in 1978, our teachers performed a variation of Jane Elliott's blue eyes/brown eyes experiment--they segregated the fountains and the doors. They were fair, at least: if you got the good door, you got the crap fountain and vice versa. I don't remember which combo went to who, now, only that they put up the requisite signs we'd seen pictured in our social-studies textbooks: WHITE. COLORED.

You couldn't do it now, in today's litigation-mad society. Someone would sue the pants off someone. But I have no recollection of telling my mother about this, or of any other adult intervening. For a week, we endured; we followed the rules. It didn't turn as vicious as the Elliott exercise is rumored to. If you screwed up, a teacher would reprimand and correct you, but gently. Plus the spoils and disadvantages were equitably distributed, so that if you had to trudge around what seemed like half a block to get to the playground, well, at least you could easily slake your thirst later. I wonder, now, if they expected us to resist--to protest. For whatever reason, we didn't.

We had seen the photos in the books: the signs, but also the young people, dressed up fancy to our eyes in dresses, in suits and ties...and being blasted by fire hoses, bitten by dogs. It was a few years yet before we learned of kids being jabbed with lit cigarettes, beaten within an inch of their lives, blown apart in a church basement, for daring only to demand their dignity. They were kids, so many of the Civil Rights activists in the 1960s. It's the point David Halberstam makes in even the title of his chronicle of the movement, The Children--that these were mostly college students, high school students, some even younger. I have been flipping back through that book a lot this week. And I have been thinking, time and again, of my teachers.

I don't know if they were disappointed, that we went along with their experiment so easily. I remember being redirected, a few times, to the "right" fountain or door, and what I experienced was primarily a sense of personal embarrassment and shame, at making the mistake. I was a teacher's pet kind of kid, terrified of breaking a rule--even an arbitrarily imposed and morally bankrupt one. Then again, we knew: this was a temporary inconvenience. What had been plain fact, in our parents' time, had in a generation become merely bewildering: a bizarre restriction that made no sense to us and, at any rate, was over with in a blink. Or mostly over, I guess...because I have not forgotten it in 30 years. Because the lesson has been on my mind, now, for all of this extraordinary week.

I have been thinking about my friends with kids, too. How for this next generation coming along behind me, an African-American President will be a plain fact; how the caveat once appended to so many children's aspirations--you can be anything you want to be in America...except--has overnight become a dim weird relic of history, lumped in with my and my parents' past, the benighted past when we did not know any better. Someday, someone's kid will find this moment in our history bewildering, fusty, dare I say...boring. And I could not be any prouder or more grateful for that thought.

The following photographs were taken by 17-year-old Nita Vidutis (yes, a kid) at an Obama rally in Manassas, Virginia, the Monday night before the election. They've been posted everywhere--I got them originally from the YWCHB blog--but are entirely worth seeing again. Look at these kids' faces. Look at their fathers' faces. Oh, look. Look.


Some Bloke said...

Well the whole world is perhaps a leeetle big of an exaggeration. Coverage here is long over. There was no talk about the puppies, and I didn't see these (great) pictures on any media.

So, basically, we're done. Now please fix the economy. That's what the news here is all about again.

Kim said...

You begrudge me my Three Dog Night reference?!

But yes. We're finally starting to come to our senses, here, and thank goodness...but for a couple days it was the Puppy Channel, everywhere you looked. Have to feed the 24-hour "news" machine somehow, I guess.

My verification word for this comment is "buntedra," which I think would make an excellent Norse god.

Holly said...

Hmph. The pessimistic Germans are still thrilled about the whole changeover. Bits and pieces make the news daily, in one form or another. I've never seen them so optimistic about something on the other side of the Atlantic before!

And yes, the big dog debate has been on the news several times, although the subtleties of bringing a Heinz 57 into the Oval Office are a bit lost on most viewers, even with Obama's own comments on the subject.

Thanks for the enthusiasm, Kim! Keep it up!