In our current age of divisiveness, it feels to me as if we have somehow forgotten America’s motto, E Pluribus Unum, or out of many, one. Instead, our society appears to be increasingly splintered along fault lines defined by our unique differences. In article headlines and warring social media posts, we see our nation’s division evidenced in reports of the severe mistreatment (and killings) of people of color, immigrants, people of different religions, ideologies, and political leanings, and any other defining attribute you can think of.
Witnessing the widening disunion is painful – all of us suffer, no one is unaffected. To once again quote Rodney King, “Can we all just get along?” I find myself pondering this question more and more, and wondering why we cannot shift the focus to celebrating each other’s differences instead?
I will never forget the ways in which my life was enriched by spending time with people much different than myself during my career in education.
As a junior high school teacher in Topeka, Kansas, I worked with a student population representative of a rainbow of cultures. One 15-year-old student, named *Felicia (*name changed), arrived late to school twice during the first nine weeks. School policy dictated that I send her to the office. I knew that upon receiving her third tardy slip, she’d be required to stay after school. When I asked her why she was late, her only reply was an insolent, defiant shrug. So, instead of sending her to the office, my curiosity got the best of me and I asked her to get her lunch tray and bring it to my classroom.
As we sat down to eat and began to talk, I explained to her, once again, the seriousness of her offense. At first, she remained defensive, withdrawn and sullen, but finally, she broke down with a tearful, angry rejoinder, “I have a baby. My mom can’t get the baby to the sitter before school, so it’s up to me to bathe and dress him and get him there before walking to school. I just can’t get here on time even if I want to. My baby comes first.”
My heart dropped to my stomach. How did this 15-year-old have the strength, determination, and stamina to get herself to school under these circumstances? My better angels took charge and I immediately came up with a new agreement that would better suit both of us: Felicia would come to my office every day at lunchtime to make up her time, and I would catch her up on everything she missed while we ate together.
Over time, I came to admire Felicia’s strength of character. Despite daunting obstacles, she was doing her best to juggle all of life’s responsibilities even in her tender years. When she finally graduated, she stopped by my room to say goodbye. I told her how proud I was of her and how convinced I was she and her baby would do well. She thanked me profusely, so pleased to go on to high school.
I reflected as she walked away, “If only you knew what a gift you’ve been by allowing me to give you a second chance.”
Later in my career, in Highland Park, Illinois, I served as the school’s Director of Instruction and Program Evaluation. I took vacation days so I could work with teachers at a nearby Indiana middle school serving a large Amish community.
My assignment was to help the principal and staff create an advisory base to encourage positive interactions between students—a place of belonging and “home” while they were at school. Our goal was to encourage Amish students to stay in school through high school rather than dropping out after their eighth- grade year, which was the norm. Around that time, the U.S. Supreme court had ruled that Amish children could not be required to attend school after eighth grade. Parents’ fundamental right to freedom of religion could not be infringed upon.
Unlike the stereotypical high school dropout, Amish children were able to embrace a rich vocational education at home and, in many cases, a thriving work community after leaving public schools. However, as dedicated school educators, we all wanted these children to have the benefit of formal high school education.
In retrospect, and with years of hindsight, I think perhaps the most important benefit the Amish children received by attending the public school was the friendships and mutual respect they established with their non-Amish classmates during those formative years.
For me, one of the most poignant memories of that period was the night I hosted a parent meeting for the middle school children and their families. As parents began filing into the room, my attention focused on the back of the room, as several Amish men sporting traditional full beards, black vests or jackets, and white shirts silently entered the room and sat down in the back row.
As other parents arrived, the group nodded respectfully to the special guests in the back and I wondered if it was unusual for these parents to attend or if everyone’s friendly nods were the typical recognition between parents of these distinct communities.
That meeting was one of the highlights of my career. All of the parents asked pointed and smart questions. There was no doubt in my mind that every parent in the room was equally passionate about his or her child and interested in learning about the school’s intent and purpose. I was thrilled when, at the conclusion of the evening, those Amish men came up to politely thank me for the presentation.
What did Felicia and the Amish children in this small Indiana town share in common?
Felicia wanted to be a good parent. As she said to me that first day, “My baby comes first.” The families of those children in Indiana also wanted the best for their children. Both Felicia and the Amish children were the outliers in their respective schools. In each case, however, we proved that we could advance a community built on our common human desire to learn and advance as productive citizens.
These stories are of course small examples, but that does not make them any less real. The people in these stories of mine did not merely look past the differences of others; they embraced these differences and found harmony as a result. These experiences have proved to me that it is possible – we can work to regain a common sense of purpose, empathy, and shared humanity as individuals and as a nation.
In order to move forward, we must examine the errors of both our past and present and work to do better in the future. To quote philosopher George Santayana: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
How do you help yourself or others to accept and even embrace the differences of all people in our great melting pot of a nation? Are there small things you can do in your daily lives to make others feel welcome, safe, and accepted?
© Tyra Manning 2020