Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

THE SIMPSON LEGACY : Just Under the Skin : Teachers of the '90s Tackle the Issue of Race Head-On : As the Ticking Gets Louder, Trying to Inoculate Children Against Bigotry Is a Race Against the Clock

October 10, 1995|JANE GROSS | TIMES URBAN AFFAIRS WRITER

Randy Haege spreads a fan of construction paper before a roomful of eager fifth-graders whose faces are a living color wheel of black, brown, yellow, white and every shade in between.

There is paper of burnt umber and bronze, gold ocher and taupe, coffee and portrait pink; paper of raw sienna and sandalwood, terra-cotta and copper, almond and peach.

There are colors enough for all 26 children in Haege's class at the Anatola Avenue Elementary School in Van Nuys, who are making masks of their faces. There is a mirror on the wall to help them choose the colors. All this because Haege wants the skin color just right.

"Take a moment to think about it," the teacher tells them. "Look in the mirror. Hold your hands in a circle and compare. Now, I don't want any put-downs. But I do want us to try and get as close as we can to who we really are."

Once upon a time, no one bothered to produce a rainbow of colored paper for children's self-portraits. Once upon a time, adults corrected the manners of a youngster who dared mention race. But those days are long gone in Los Angeles, where nearly nine out of 10 schoolchildren are nonwhite and teaching tolerance is a desperate preoccupation.

*

And so teachers such as Haege are talking bluntly to children about race and ethnicity, encouraging them to learn each other's ways and arming them with values and skills for living peaceably in a city that has become a centrifuge of racial tension.

At Anatola, in a lower middle class San Fernando Valley neighborhood, that work is being done with particular vigor because of Kiyo Fukumoto, the school's Japanese American principal, who spent the first five years of his life in an internment camp in Heart Mountain, Wyo., and the last 30 years promoting multicultural education for the city's schoolchildren.

Fukumoto has the conviction of a true believer. He knows the challenge for a child entering school with no English. He has felt the sting of racial barbs. He has studied the scholarly literature of prejudice. His task, as he sees it, is not to tell the children at Anatola how to coexist in harmony but to show them that they can. "In order for them to feel closeness, friendship, they have to live it," Fukumoto said. "They have to play with each other, enjoy each other, help each other. That's real. That's what it takes for them to have a lifelong understanding."

Anatola is a better laboratory than most for this daunting experiment, which, if successful, could point the way to improved race relations for a fractured city and a confounded nation.

Unlike many others schools in the gargantuan Los Angeles Unified School District, it is an intimate place with 375 children, all of them from the neighborhood. Although they speak an array of languages, represent many races and creeds, and hail from all over the world, they have much in common. There is no busing here, no separate classrooms where youngsters are taught in their native language, no wide differences between rich and poor.

But even at Anatola, inoculating children against bigotry is a race against a clock that many education experts say ticks loudest in the fifth grade, before the dangerous passage from elementary to middle school. There, the structure of the school day robs children of intimate adult attention, the pressures of adolescence force them to band together with their peers and once harmless racial differences can set the stage for gang mayhem.

Fukumoto and his teachers are, at best, guardedly optimistic, and they know they are swimming against a tide that may be stronger than their best efforts.

"At our level, we might have a chance to do something," said the 54-year-old principal. "But once they leave us, it is a question mark because there are so many forces bearing down on them."

In the 12 classrooms at Anatola, at the outdoor lunch tables and on the barren asphalt schoolyard, these children seem to get along nicely, working in racially mixed teams and playing in heterogeneous groups without prodding from adults.

To be sure, there are squabbles and name-calling. But the children say that the words that sting most are not about their race or ethnicity, but the timeworn barbs about appearance and status.

For Janessa Ramos, a fifth-grader of Mexican descent, the meanest thing another child can call her is "four eyes" or "retard." For Nancy Clavel, whose parents come from El Salvador, it's "fatso." Nanaz Heidari, from Iran, resents remarks about her hairy legs. Crystal Pazos, from Peru, balks at "shorty." Junior Garcia, from Mexico, hates suggestions that his shoes come from PayLess.

Yes, the children say, the nastiness is sometimes racial: Students get called nigger, white-ass or brownie. Those who can't speak English are labeled stupid. Those who can't speak Spanish are ridiculed in a language they don't understand. The Latino children, who represent a slim majority at Anatola, are sometimes accused of causing all the trouble in California.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|