In the Fall of 1967 Carl Stokes was running for Mayor of Cleveland, Ohio. In November, when he was elected, he was the first African-American mayor of a major U.S. city. In the suburb of Cleveland Heights, where I was in the third grade at Fairfax Elementary School, that election might as well have been a million miles away. There were no children of color in my class. I'm not sure there were any in the entire school.
I grew up in an old, solid neighborhood with old trees, old slate sidewalks, and center-hall Colonial single family houses with the garage out back. Dads went to work. Moms stayed home. Children roller-skated, pulled wagons, rode bikes, played ball, drew with chalk on the driveways and turned the rope for hours of jump-rope rhymes.
Down in the valley where the green grass grows, there sat Jenny as sweet as a rose, she sang, she sang, she sang so sweet, along came Johnny and kissed her on the cheek. How many kisses did he give? One, two, three, four...
Something happened in the third grade that changed my world. It wasn't a very big thing, but it opened up a tiny crack in the way I had always seen things and made me realize that my world wasn't the only one.
On the annual Fall field trip to the farm, the third grade from my school was paired up with the third grade from a school in inner city Cleveland. Each child from the one school was partnered up from a child in the other. It was a life changing experience. We had never seen so many black children. They had never seen so many white children.
The teachers were working overtime, I am sure, just dealing with the excitement of a bunch of kids trying to figure eachother out. I remember feeling shy, shrinking back from the boisterous energy and loudness on the school bus. When we got to the farm our focus was turned away from ourselves and we were just a bunch of kids at the farm.
Except there were those little differences. The inner city children felt much more intimidated by the farm environment, and they were much more concerned about getting dirty than we were. Our world assumed orderly bus rides and frequent field trips and mothers who were always on call to clean us up if we got dirty. A loudly quacking duck was funny to us, to our new friends, it was an unfamiliar threat.
I don't remember the name of the little girl who was paired up with me, but I do remember the moment that the little knot of fear inside me melted. She asked if she could touch my hair. (It was very blonde in those days.) She had never seen hair like mine, ever, and she just wanted to know what it felt like. Something about that was so humanizing to me. I knew what it was like to just want to touch something; so much of childhood is just wanting to touch things to find out what they are.
On the way back to school our new friends taught us a jumprope rhyme that we thought was naughty and hilarious. I think it raised a few eyebrows when we got back home. But it has stuck with me all these years, a souvenir from a world-changing trip.
Cinderella, dressed in yella, went downtown to see her fella. On the bus her girdle busted. How many people were disgusted? One, two, three, four...
As we examine ways to address diversity in our schools in Howard County, I'd like to suggest that it isn't a highly-paid Central Office position that will bring meaningful change, but time. We need to show we value moments of connection and exploration by allowing our teachers and staff the time to create and foster them.