Some years ago, I was leaving a restaurant when a woman reached out and took hold of my hand.
She looked familiar to me, but I didn’t immediately recognize her. She refreshed my memory by telling me she had been the receptionist at a large corporation in Minneapolis where I had once worked. She told me that after I had left my job, she had gone into a deep depression and ultimately had to leave her job. She explained that I had been the only person who ever spoke to her, greeting her with a “good morning” and a “good night.”
She explained that the lack of acknowledgement by the hundreds of people who came and went past her each day made her feel like “wallpaper.” Her story shocked and saddened me, and it highlights how small gestures, both positive and negative, can have a significant impact on others.
There has been a lot of discussion recently about how we are treating one another. Locally, the Chaska schools have received the most attention, but we know that problems exist in schools throughout Carver County. Stories have been told about overtly racist behavior, as well as bullying and other unacceptable behavior, and complaints have been made to individual schools, as well as school boards, and parents are looking for improvement.
As we prepare for back to school, educators, parents and students can all resolve to improve the atmosphere of equity and inclusiveness in our schools in a number of ways. Educators can redouble their efforts to ensure some students are not excluded by structuring work teams; allowing children who may be chosen last by their peers to do the choosing for teams; and pairing students who excel with students needing extra coaching. Lessons might be planned to highlight different cultures and experiences.
Parents can encourage inclusiveness among their children’s friends; they can reach out to the parents of minority or special education students at school events and for volunteering opportunities. Students should be corrected if they use unacceptable language or engage in unacceptable behavior.
In most cases, bias against persons of another race, faith, class, ability or other difference are often learned at home and may be the result of inner fears of those we are not familiar with.
We must recognize that these feelings conflict with our American ideals and values. As American’s, we believe that we are all created equal. Our hearts know that we should judge a person by their character; but doing so is often a difficult task, as we fall back on stereotypes and when we fail to appreciate the advantages conferred by belonging to the predominant group in our society.
We must also look inward and recognize the small subtle ways we exhibit bias that we think goes unnoticed, and that people of goodwill can all work on improving. Do we look away rather than meet the gaze of a person of color and not give them the smile we would give to others who are more like us? Do we choose a checkout line to avoid the cashier wearing a hijab?
At a school or community event, will you sit next to a parent who appears to be of a different economic class than you and make small talk? Will you seek out and invite parents of children of color, special education parents or parents of LGBTQ children to participate in PTA activities? If those around you make a disrespectful remark or joke, will you correct them?
We live in a multicultural society. To limit the education and exposure of our children to persons of differing cultures, faith and experience will only serve to handicap our children as they move toward adulthood.
Most of our children will have the experience of coworkers, neighbors, customers, suppliers, managers, subordinates, leaders and colleagues who are different than themselves. Increasing our children’s understanding, perspective and empathy for persons who differ from themselves is a part of becoming a well-educated adult and are skills that will serve them well throughout life.