Thursday, October 20, 2011

Careful teaching

A friend emailed me this morning asking rhetorically,  “At what age do people start hating other people?” His query drew to mind that Rodgers and Hammerstein ditty from South Pacific:

You've got to be carefully taught

You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!

I was on the verge of my eighth birthday when I started third grade under the stern but loving tutelage of Miss Pauline Singley [later to become the well-respected Dr. Pauline Singley Davis at district HQ; assistant superintendent, I think]. That was the class that had Ray Abt, John Mishne, Belva Blankenschoen, Carol Negenborn, and assorted other classmates of East European extraction who were soon to depart the neighborhood. [Any of you guys still around? Give me a shout out!]

One September day, shortly after that first semester started, less than 90 days after moving to our new city, my parents casually inquired as to how many Caucasians were in my classroom of 25 or 30.

Now, I had been an avid reader since pre-school, back when pre-school meant you hadn’t attended any kind of school, except maybe nursery, which I had had the good fortune to avoid. So I had a pretty good working vocabulary for a seven year old. But that “Caucasian” was a new word. What the heck were they asking about? I couldn’t answer their question with an approximate number until they explained some basic phenotype stuff to me.

I had no real concept of race before that first year at Miles Standish Elementary in Cleveland's burgeoning Glenville area. Born and raised in Washington DC, I had spent nearly the first eight years of my life in and around the marvelously sophisticated campus of Howard University, just up the hill from the Hill, i.e., the nation’s capitol buildings. I knew about Africans, whose fascinating accents could be heard all around the campus. But I didn’t know about white folks.  I didn’t know that my neighborhood school in northeast Washington was legally segregated — and remained so until after the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

After that storied decision my fascination with words led me to spend endless hours trying to decipher the nuances that distinguished the new words I began to hear with increasing frequency. What's the difference between de jure and de facto? Is "integration" the same as "desegregation"? 

I think the country is still trying to answer that last one!

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