I have been fortune to have life experiences that have given me a high bar for diversity. When we lived in London, we attended a British school with an incredibly international student body. On our first day of 5th grade religion class, Mr. Ford went down the roster, asking us each to state our religion. Presbyterian, Catholic, Jewish — these I knew from home. (I remember learning that I was “Episcopalian, but if that’s too hard just say Protestant.”) But then others I had never encountered: Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist. And others I didn’t even know were religions: Zoroastrian, agnostic. It was like Religion 101 in there. St. Paul’s Girls’ School didn’t spend a lot of time celebrating or thinking about diversity; it just was, and it was everything.

When I worked at Breakthrough Cambridge (formerly Summerbridge), the program was also a model of diversity. There was no racial or ethnic majority. We enrolled brand new immigrants and tenth-generation Cambridge residents. Students who owned homes and others who listed zero family income. Middle schoolers who could have aced college classes and others who were barely getting Cs. Students from Tibet, Honduras, Eritrea, Haiti, Singapore, Uganda. And that doesn’t even include the college kids who worked in the program.

My daughters are getting a big dose of diversity this year and I am so grateful. Hannah’s class of 17 at the Jerusalem American International School represents 11 different nations, including both Israel and Palestine. On “international day,” my kids got to try food from all over the world; our American offerings of brownies and corn on the cob felt pretty boring by comparison! Hannah’s teacher is gifted at differentiation, somehow able to teach kids who can read chapter books and others who had never spoken a word of English before September. The kids celebrate every holiday. They made Hanukiahs and Christmas ornaments and went on a pretend “Hajj” around campus for Eid al-Adha.

As Terence is learning from his Fulbright research, this kind of diversity is very, very, very much the exception in education in Jerusalem and around the country, where schools are segregated by religion and within religions. Secular Jews learn separately from religious Jews, there are separate schools for Muslim Arabs and Christian Arabs, and religious schools are splintered by how religious, what particular flavor of religion, and of course by gender. There are very few educational or social institutions that bring people together. (And sometimes they are not as ‘open’ as they seem. Hannah is taking swimming classes at the YMCA, supposedly a beacon of diversity, and last week Terence ended up mediating a debate between a father who works for the UN and some parents who strenuously reject the Palestinian statehood bid. Diplomacy by the pool side).

So when all Hannah’s classmates came together to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. day in this segregated city, it made more than the usual shiver run down my spine. They acted out a play called Shapetown, in which the circles, triangles, squares and rectangles have a war of words. “The triangles said, ‘if you want to be beautiful and good, you must have three sides like we do.’ The squares said, ‘if you want to be beautiful and good, you must have four sides just the same. You should look like we do!'” Eventually of course the shapes see what amazing things they can make if they work together. A triangle + circle = ice cream cone!

This is kindergarten after all, so concepts and vocabulary are simple. But I have to believe this exposure is laying down a foundation in Hannah’s mind, and Margaret’s too. Now our challenge will be how to build upon it when we go back to our real lives in Delaware.

About hilarymead

Taking two young kids, a great husband, and a whole lot of questions to Jerusalem for a year's sabbatical.
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3 Responses to Shapetown

  1. Lindsey says:

    Love this. In perfect timing, Grace’s class is doing a unit on “differences” and they had to write an essay about a time they felt different. She immediately suggested Jerusalem. It was not at all negative, at all, simply reflections on what other people spoke like, looked like, and ate, and how she felt different there. I love that they have had this experience.
    And yes I recall SPGS as the most unselfconscious of united nations. xox

  2. Margaret says:

    Shapetown sounds amazing! I appreciate teachers who are able to introduce huge lessons in age-appropriate ways. The kids will always have that frame of reference. Here in Savannah, with Jillson in public school kindergarten, it was her first exposure to the lessons of Martin Luther King. Some of it she gets. She told me that without the work of MLK, she and her friend Genavia could not attend the same school. (“Isn’t that crazy, Mommy?”) And yet she is baffled that her grandparents were alive when MLK was. (So this all happened when they were alive?! How could her righteous grandparents have allowed such a thing to go on in the good ole USA?) Meanwhile, Jillson’s idea of diversity will be formed, I think, by the military community which is fairly diverse racially and, to some extent, socioeconomically. It is not, however, diverse idealogically. We are the “token” Episcopalians and (to those to whom we’ve been outed) the token liberals. I often wonder how this will effect my children’s sense of belonging…

  3. Margaret says:

    Where’s the edit button? That should be affect. Suzanne, are you reading this? 🙂

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