The firstgraders in Jennifer Lamb’s Seltice Elementary class don’t know a lot about Martin Luther King Jr.
But they understand his message.
“When everybody’s the same, it’s totally boring,” says a reflective 7-year-old, Zach Hamilton.
He stares at a picture in a textbook the size of a desktop. It shows a city scene with every car, building, street and person the same color.
“It’s good that we’re all different.”
Young Zach has grasped a message that, according to teachers, sometimes is tough to get across in a region where cultural and ethnic diversity are lacking. Lamb’s class spent the last two weeks learning that not everyone has white skin and speaks English.
“It’s easy for us to say we accept people with different skin colors,” Lamb said, keeping an eye on her students. “But the reality is we don’t have a lot of diversity. And we live in an area where kids are hearing things at home. … There are people who don’t want multicultured teachings at all.”
That’s not the case in Lamb’s class, however; she says parents generally applaud exercises such as the “skin experiment.” Students sit face to face, holding their fists together to compare skin colors, seeing subtle but clear differences.
The youngsters also make “paper doll people” using red, brown, yellow, black and white paper. And they sing short phrases in French and German, not just English.
However difficult to deliver, the message is simple. And after a time, it’s so clearly understood that Lamb’s first-graders put their knowledge to song at a North Idaho College human relations rally attended by about 1,200 students last week.
“We are different, different as can be,” the children sang. “I don’t look like you, you don’t look like me.”
Tony Stewart, president of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, says the concepts so readily understood by children are just as easily lost on adults. The task force is known nationally as a model for grass-roots efforts to combat prejudice and bigotry.
“When you watch the children, you really can see that the message is getting through,” Stewart says.
“If we’re ever going to live together in harmony, I know it’ll happen because of education.”
The shelter of the classroom, however, is short-lived. Even as Lamb’s students prepared to sing at NIC, members of the white supremacist Aryan Nations handed out literature to adults outside Boswell Hall.
Perhaps because of such organizations, the region still struggles to outrun the shadow of national media coverage, whose critical eye frequently focuses on hate groups and separatists who settle in the Panhandle. Just last week, the New York Times painted Idaho as “virtually all white, … one of the most attractive destinations for whites in flight.”
The relative absence of racial and ethnic minorities in North Idaho creates challenges for teachers. When Betty Fredricksen exposes her Sandpoint first-graders to different ethnic groups through literature or guest speakers, it’s often the first time the children have considered cultures other than their own.
“You have to teach (diversity) differently in North Idaho because the (numbers of) minorities are so low,” said Fredricksen, herself a Native American.
“You have to dig deeper and try harder to expose the children to different things.”
Fredricksen has invited Native American groups to the classroom. She also believes children absorb much about other cultures simply by reading literature from someplace other than the United States.
A.C. Woolnough, principal at Sandpoint High School, remembers his days at a Sacramento (Calif.) middle school where students lived with “19 religions and kids from 27 countries.” He agrees that North Idaho’s lack of ethnic diversity requires creativity by teachers and parents. Just as practicing science is better than merely reading science textbooks, so goes instruction in diversity.
“But we have just as wide a range of opinions in this area as anywhere else,” Woolnough said. “We have parents on the (local) human rights task force and parents who support the Militia of Montana.
He noted that separatists recently handed out literature in Sandpoint, as in Coeur d’Alene, that called for abolition of the King holiday.
“So the diversity is here. … It’s just of a different nature.”
Therein lies another challenge: Students must learn that the Aryan Nations members handing out literature at NIC last week have just as much right to their views, however unconventional, as anyone else does.
Consequently, back in Post Falls, Zach Hamilton and his classmates are not learning that certain opinions are right, others wrong. Lamb leaves that teaching to her students’ parents, she says.
“I want my kids to leave the classroom reading and writing,” she says. “But I also want their selfesteem intact. … I want them to be able to get along with other people.”
Zach Hamilton’s song ends much as it begins:
“… every difference makes it all more fun. ‘Cause different means special, we’re special, everyone.”