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A School at the End of the Rainbow

November 27, 1985|MARY ELLEN STROTE | Strote lives in Calabasas

My son is 5, his name is Noah and he seems to have an affinity for rainbows. On hot days, he looks for the arc of color in the mist of the sprinklers. When a storm has passed, he runs outside hoping to find a pot of gold. He even goes to school in a rainbow.

This particular rainbow has appeared inside a Montessori school in Canoga Park, a middle-class, middle-income bedroom community not widely known as multihued. The 1980 Census, in fact, claims Canoga Park residents are less than 8% Latino, 3% Asian and Pacific Islander and a mere .05% black. The vast majority is Anglo.

Children of Immigrants

I suspect the Census, while it may have its statistical heart in the right place, says more about Canoga Park's past than its future. Of the 30 black, brown and white youngsters between the ages of 2 and 6 enrolled in this school, many are the children of immigrants. Their parents have come here from Egypt and Israel, India and Pakistan, Guatemala, Ireland, China, Denmark, Yugoslavia, Colombia and even Iceland. And that is just for starters. As a group, these children could pose for a UNICEF poster or comprise the cast of one of those ethnically correct Coca-Cola ads on television.

Their family incomes vary too. Some are driven to school in Mercedeses, some in 20-year-old Dodges and some arrive on foot. A single dad who works the early shift at a nearby factory brings his sleepy boy at precisely 7 a.m. to utilize every minute of available day care. A shapely mom in an aerobics outfit drops her little one off when she gets around to it.

At home these children speak Serbian, Spanish, Hebrew. . . . If they don't know English when they come here, they are taught by heavily accented teachers at the school whose first languages are German, Italian and Singhalese, the language of Ceylon. And whether their religions are Catholic, Hindu, Jewish, fundamentalist Christian or Muslim, the Buddhist principal gives them all brightly wrapped gifts at Christmas time.

Beyond the Battlegrounds

It is difficult to remember, when I bring my son here every morning, that almost everywhere else American education is under siege. Since the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, millions of dollars and enormous human energy have been spent to integrate schools on the one hand and to fight busing on the other. The long battle over bilingual education shows more signs of heating up than of letting up. And experts continue to debate whether the boom in private and parochial education is inspired by a return to old-time religion or a return to old-time fear, bigotry and elitism.

Sometimes I wonder whether the other parents are aware of the maelstrom of confusion that exists outside this school. They certainly seem blithely unconcerned with the cultural hodgepodge into which they drop their youngsters each day. (One young mother, an Armenian refugee from the Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran seemed only mildly surprised when she realized that her son plays daily with a little girl whose Iranian mother always wears a chador .)

But of course they must be aware. In many of the world's great cities--in Beirut or Tehran or Jerusalem or Johannesburg or Dublin or Cairo--these children would, at best, live on separate sides of town. If, God forbid, their parents weren't actively engaged in killing or exploiting or evicting each other, they would at least be spending a lot of time making sure these children never met. At this school in Canoga Park, however, the biggest problem is figuring out how to prevent the littlest ones from trading a sandwich for a candy bar at lunch time.

An American Notion

Perhaps these parents' easy acceptance of diversity is their notion of the way Americans are supposed to act. Perhaps they see America as less a melting pot than a stewpot, with each new ingredient keeping its own separate color, texture and flavor.

At any rate, they keep their own counsel and their own traditions. Not much accommodation to ethnic or religious or linguistic difference is offered or expected here. Well, OK, birthday party menus lean heavily toward peanut butter sandwiches so as not to offend Hindu vegetarianism or some minimal laws of kashrut. And scheduling play days with school chums means taking into account Bible school meetings and a variety of Sabbaths.

Otherwise, the complex and controversial issues of racial integration, bilingual education and the separation of church and state seems to be non-issues at this school.

They are, however, issues for me. I am intensely aware of the ethnicity of the children at this school. It is one of the reasons I chose it. My childhood in a prejudiced suburb and my education in segregated schools felt to me like a kind of theft. What was stolen was my innocent and natural acceptance of the difference between peoples. I resolved early on that my own children would not experience the social crippling that is the legacy of segregation.

The New Ellis Island

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