With all due respect to the idea behind the book, “All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” there was a particular lesson that changed me from the inside out, learned in 1969 in Mr. Rau’s fifth-grade class at Clara Barton Elementary School in my hometown of Levittown, Pa.
Historical side note: Levittown was one of several planned communities built along the East Coast by William Levitt in the 1950s, originally designed for whites only. They existed in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida and Puerto Rico.
Back to my fifth-grade lesson, a powerful lesson on discrimination at a time when Civil Rights and segregation were hot topics on the national front, as well as in my town. In short, Mr. Rau spent a school day giving special privileges and favors to kids with brown eyes, like extra recess and snacks, and relief from classwork. We blue-eyed kids got no recess or snacks. We had to take impossible tests and follow rules devised to keep us apart from the “favored” kids. We watched as our brown-eyed friends were treated as smarter and better, while we found ourselves overlooked as if invisible, labeled as inferior for our failures on tests stacked against us, and immersed in an impossible class culture where success was not an option, based solely on a physical trait we had no control over.
I was 10 at the time, and consider that lesson to be the single most valuable and tangible lesson ever taught to me in all my years of public school education. It has served me well in my main occupation, as a human being.
I wish it were still being taught to kids today, although I’m certain it would not be allowed due to concerns over how it would affect the children. Of course, that is the point, to change minds and hearts.
I am thrilled that PBS made a documentary, “A Class Divided,” which is available online, about the very same lesson on discrimination I experienced, as originally taught by third-grade teacher Jane Elliott in a white Iowa suburb, a lesson she continued to teach over the years with fascinating results to adult audiences as well as her students. She first brought the experiential learning to her students on the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
You can watch it below. Please, watch it with your children tonight.
Lessons, Part 2
I’d also like to recommend a particularly pertinent 30-minute YouTube video chronicling an event in my hometown in 1957 when the first black family moved into the whites-only manufactured community, which offered the “American Dream” for $100 down.
Although I have always known the significance of the day Bill and Daisy Myers bought a home from an original Levittowner, becoming the first black family to break the color barrier there, I had never watched this clip until a few years ago. He was an Army veteran with a good job, studying to be an electrical engineer. She was a college graduate and mother of three – a lot like my own family, minus a kid.
It is breathtaking to me to hear the neighbors talk about what it will mean to their suburban utopia, from loss of property value to “bringing hoards of colored people” to the area, to the fear that their children will “have to marry niggers.”
When my mom and dad bought their Levittown home on the GI Bill in 1955 it was the epitome of their “American Dream,” an idea that was coined by author James Truslow Adams in 1931, in that for Americans, “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.
That comes directly from our Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that “all men are created equal,” “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
In 1957, the same year Bill and Daisy Myers bravely began blurring the color lines in “whites only” Levittown, Pa., Martin Luther King Jr. became president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He led the desegregation movement in the south, where the unwelcome wagon would have been rolled out for Bill and Daisy Myers with equal fanfare.