When Merina Berkey talked, people listened.
None of the teenagers or adults in the room uttered a word as the 14-year-old Mead girl aired her views on the controversial subject of abortion.
But when Sam Thomas spoke, his peers gave him funny looks, asked him to repeat himself and eventually simply brushed him off.
“Excuse me, I want to say something,” the Mead eighth-grader pleaded.
“What?” shouted the others, curling their lips.
“Quit looking at me like that,” an exasperated Sam said.
Like Hester Prynne, who wore the scarlet letter in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous novel, Sam was a victim of labeling.
His paper headband spelled his fate: “Immigrant that speaks very little English.” Merina was lucky. Her headband read, “Wise.”
The headband game at Camp PEACE on Wednesday showed about 30 junior high and high school students from Sandpoint and Mead how labels affect the way people interact.
The students noticed that even though they couldn’t see their own label, their behavior started to fit it. Sam, for instance, started to stutter and forget what he wanted to say.
Sandpoint senior Frank Cipriano, labeled “Leader,” took control of the discussion. After all, everyone deferred to him.
The three-day camp, which runs through today at Twinlow Camp near Twin Lakes, is designed to help students combat racism and other forms of prejudice within themselves, at school and in their communities.
In its fifth year, the camp usually serves students from Spokane and Kootenai County in the spring. The Spokane Council of Ecumenical Ministries and the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations decided to hold a fall session to bring in students from other communities.
“I and others really tried to recruit a team from Sandpoint,” said Rev. John Olson, director of the ecumenical council.
The idea was to help Sandpoint combat the sudden image that it’s a haven for racists.
That wasn’t too difficult. The students at Sandpoint High School, led by senior Nicole Baran, already had started a human rights club called STAAR, Students Take Action Against Racism.
Sandpoint may not be any more racist than any other community, Baran said.
“With Mark Fuhrman, people have realized that there are racist people in the community,” she said. “If people don’t do anything about it, they (racists) will feel like they can come here.”
Students from Mead High School and Northwood Junior High School, also in Mead, have a growing problem of their own, they said.
“I don’t have any problems with my race,” said Dulce Nevarez, a Northwood ninth-grader from Mexico. “But one of my friends last week was called a nigger.”
The students who overheard the insult just laughed. No one intervened or objected, she said. “They don’t want to say anything, because they don’t want anyone to get mad.”
Racial tensions at the school seem to be growing, said student body president Ryan Valentine. One sign of this was a Ku Klux Klan hood that a student wore to last year’s school Mardi Gras celebration.
“A lot of students aren’t prejudiced, but they don’t know how to deal with it,” said Mead High School adviser Angela McBride.
Camp PEACE (the acronym stands for People Everywhere Are Created Equal) trains students how to stand up for equal rights and gives them tools to fight prejudice at school.
Today, the students will get together to create action plans before returning to their schools. Previous visitors to Camp PEACE, such as Coeur d’Alene students, have started human rights clubs after attending the camp.
The people in this group “are going to be a little bit closer,” Sam Thomas said. “This could make a difference. This could start a change.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo