LA Times reporter Corina Knoll provides a touching tale in her article, “Thanking her for opening my eyes,” of how important teachers can be in shaping how we view others and the world. She explains how Iowa schoolteacher Jane Elliot helped her third grade class understand the dynamics and consequences of racism in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
With King shot just the day before in Memphis, Elliott encouraged her third-graders to discuss how something so horrible could happen.
“I finally said, ‘Do you kids have any idea how it feels to be something other than white in this country?’ “
The children shook their heads and said they wanted to learn, so Elliott set the rules. Blue-eyed children must use a cup to drink from the fountain. Blue-eyed children must leave late to lunch and to recess. Blue-eyed children were not to speak to brown-eyed children. Blue-eyed children were troublemakers and slow learners.
Within 15 minutes, Elliott says, she observed her brown-eyed students morph into youthful supremacists and blue-eyed children become uncertain and intimidated.
Brown-eyed children “became domineering and arrogant and judgmental and cool,” she says. “And smart! Smart! All of a sudden, disabled readers were reading. I thought, ‘This is not possible, this is my imagination.’ And I watched bright, blue-eyed kids become stupid and frightened and frustrated and angry and resentful and distrustful. It was absolutely the strangest thing I’d ever experienced.”
As Elliot recounts in videos from the Frontline program, “A Class Divided,” she took this rather drastic approach because experience is more valuable than just talk:
I knew it was time to deal with this in a concrete way not just talk about it, because we had talked about racism since the first day of school.
I remember several years ago being asked by a friend who had been active in the civil rights movement and was African American why I, as the proverbial white male, was so concerned about inequality and discrimination. I had to think about it for a little bit. Certainly my most immediate influences of family and faith played important roles, but as I thought about it more, I realized that my education was formative in this regard. I was fortunate to attend public schools in the same state where Jane Elliot taught, with good teachers and a spirit of open-mindedness. I distinctly remember learning in school at an early age about the value of different cultures and race/ethnic groups. One of my earliest heroes I learned about in school, encouraged by my teachers, was Frederick Douglass. That reflection impressed on me the important role that education can play in learning not just about subjects, but also about life and dealing with with complex issues like racism and discrimination.