Essay: A Curriculum of Diversity

Posted on September 13, 2016

When the three R’s of education aren’t quite enough, a local mother searches for something more.

Illustration by Kyle Smart

After the game (the outcome of which I don’t remember), some of my guy friends thought it would be funny to try to take some of those folding chairs home. They decided that if they waited until most people had cleared out of the gym and simply walked over to the chairs and confidently folded them up, hoisted them on their shoulders and walked out, they probably wouldn’t be questioned. As they cooked up this plan in the bleachers during the fourth quarter, one friend who’s black firmly announced that he would have no part in it. “The brother cannot take a chair,” he said, shaking his head. I watched him walk out to the parking lot empty-handed while our white friends claimed their stolen chairs and quickly shoved them into their cars, giggling like fools.My oldest kid starts kindergarten this fall and, as you might expect, it feels . . . big. He is outgoing and bright, and I have every reason to believe that he’ll love it and that he’ll thrive there. The bigness of it is not particularly marked by worry or even by the disbelief that I have a kid old enough to start real school. It feels big because of what my own elementary school education meant, how it shaped me and how it still feels relevant to me today in my mid-30s. 

I went to David Lubin Elementary School from preschool through sixth grade, graduating to Sutter Middle School after that. I learned the basics there: reading, writing, math, how to build a replica of a California mission and how to pan for gold in Coloma. What shaped me most, though, and what I eventually learned to be the most valuable takeaway from my formative years in the Sacramento City Unified School District, was the diversity of my fellow classmates. 

I don’t remember an overt focus on cultural diversity in the curriculum, but my classmates were a reflection of the city we lived in, diverse both racially and socioeconomically, our school situated between Oak Park—where I lived—and the Fabulous 40s. The American Communities Project, a public service project out of Brown University, reports that Sacramento has the most diverse neighborhoods in the country and is the second most integrated city nationwide. Based on my education in Sacramento’s public schools, that sounds about right. 

That diversity was an education all its own, not relying on textbooks or planned-out modules but simple, everyday exposure to the reality that not all kids looked like me, not all families looked like mine, and not all households were run like ours. It was evident in who dropped kids off and who picked them up, who brought lunch and who ate subsidized cafeteria food, who celebrated which holidays, what colloquialisms were used and which celebrities were idolized. 

Day in and day out, we sat next to each other during circle time, we did our schoolwork together, we played foursquare together. In fourth grade, we talked about Rodney King and the Los Angeles riots as the drama unfolded, and our conversation was one of confusion and concern rather than political rhetoric or blame. We planned school dances together. We made posters together. In middle school, we watched the O.J. Simpson verdict together and we all fell quiet when he hung his head and cried tears of relief. Perhaps our families didn’t all share the same opinion about his innocence, but we didn’t see it as a cause for conflict among ourselves. Even the best-planned cultural diversity curriculum from a textbook couldn’t have had the impact those conversations and experiences did. 

When I got to high school at C.K. McClatchy and began interacting with other schools for soccer and cross country, I began to see that not every student body was as diverse as ours. And then I started to see how that shaped behavior.

During my junior or senior year, my group of friends and I drove out to Oak Ridge High School in El Dorado Hills to watch our Lions take on their Trojans in a varsity men’s basketball game. We were a bit incredulous at how nice their gym was compared to what we were used to. Of note was the home team “bench,” which was made up of a row of pristine, luxuriously padded folding chairs with the school’s multicolored logo screen-printed onto the back cushion. In our gym, the bench was an actual bench, looking not unlike it had been handed down to the school after being condemned from a nearby picnic area. 

It was the first time I really understood “white privilege.” I didn’t know it by that name at the time, but I understood that my black friends sometimes had to play by different rules than my white friends and I did. I understood that there were overt and nuanced cultural differences between races—and an awful lot of similarities as well—but I had never so plainly observed how one’s awareness of one’s race shaped their hypothesis of how they would be perceived as I did at that basketball game. 

Teenagers can be idiots. (Clearly, my friends and I were no exception.) I was reminded of this earlier this year when news broke of students at that very same Oak Ridge High School chanting anti-Asian slurs and body-shaming taunts at the C.K. McClatchy women’s basketball team and cheerleaders. It’s my hunch that the comments they shouted were intended as a joke to solicit reaction from their friends in the bleachers more than to degrade the McClatchy students and coach. But that doesn’t change the fact that the comments were racist. Inexcusably so. Hurtfully so. Deserving of real consequences. Blatantly revealing a lack of understanding and an egocentric posture toward the world around them.

It makes sense that when the majority of faces in the bleachers around you are just as white as yours (Oak Ridge is 65 percent white), the “us” of a cheering section can quickly feel like an “us” of whiteness. So while it’s all fun and games to heckle an opposing team a little bit, I can’t help but wonder if the us/them dividing lines of competing basketball teams felt a bit blurred with the us/them dividing lines of race and socioeconomics at that basketball game. It’s a slippery slope. 

Who knows what stupid things my friends and I were chanting at our high school basketball games back in the late ’90s? Social media wasn’t around yet and video-camera-equipped cell phones weren’t invented, so our comments are forever forgotten. But I can assure you any comments hurled from our bleachers weren’t racist. You know why I can be so sure? Because we probably would have gotten our asses kicked. The diversity of our student body meant that a racial slur intended for the opposing team was likely to insult someone sitting right next to us. The faces in our bleachers represented a wide swath of races, socioeconomic backgrounds, family life environments and general personal style. The “us” of our McClatchy cheering section was defined primarily by our loyalty to the team, not what we looked like. So as we searched for outlandish jeers to make each other laugh, race was never on the table. 

It’s a lot easier to understand why a racial slur isn’t funny when your friends and classmates and teammates and coaches would be hurt by it. The diversity of our student population meant that we were held accountable in a concrete way for our words and actions.

And ultimately, that’s one of the most important lessons I learned in school. My words matter. My actions matter. I do not exist in a vacuum of homogeny. I am one part of a large and diverse community that brings myriad opinions and experiences to the table. I am responsible for myself and accountable to the group.

So as I send my son off to kindergarten at the public charter California Montessori Project—after he wraps up a positive experience at Triumph, the Oak Park-based preschool component of the St. Hope charter school—I’m not too concerned about test scores and magnet programs and robotics teams. That stuff will come. That stuff can be covered in textbooks and augmented at home if necessary. How to be a good citizen of a diverse world, though? If we rely on textbooks to teach that, we’ve missed the boat. 

My hope for my new kindergartener is that while he learns to read, he also learns the weight that certain words can carry. That as he learns to write, he also learns the value of being heard. That as he learns to add, he also learns to see all of the inequality that exists in the world. And ultimately, I hope he learns the courage to be the best citizen he can be. At the end of the day, it’s up to his dad and me to teach these lessons (I know that), but we can’t do it alone. 

I’m grateful to live in a city where these lessons are readily available and where the people who are teaching them are not just teachers with books and worksheets, but children and neighbors and business owners who are telling their stories. I’m grateful that sending my kid to kindergarten feels so big, not because I am anxious but because I have such high hopes for him, and because those hopes are an extension of the hopes I have for all of us: that we would see each other, that we would value each other, that we would be responsible for ourselves but accountable to each other. That we would never be too old to keep learning the basics.

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