London — The two women in the subway car underneath London were English; i.e., they were white, rosy cheeked, blond, blue eyed, wore sensible shoes, and were discussing the school their daughters attended.
I was listening and they weren't a bit self-conscious about their talk as we sat knee to knee for more than 30 minutes. (It was the Green Line to Wimbledon.)
The talk turned from homework and maths to the ''types'' who were now asking to enroll in their daughters' school. After quite a long outburst by one on the dangers of admitting Commonwealth members from Africa and India to England, the other nodded sagely and pronounced:
''There are too many cultures.''
''Right,'' her friend agreed, ''there are just too many cultures.''
My thought went first to Madison Square Garden in New York and the Westminster Kennel Club Show. Too many dog breeds?
Next I thought of a spring visit to a field in Greece near Delphi - too many wildflowers? Or what about a rose garden; could there be too many varieties?
And then I looked around our subway car and saw that we represented almost as many cultures as there were individuals.
And next day, in Trafalgar Square, I looked again on a marvelous array of separate individuals and wondered why anyone, anywhere, could think there were ''too many cultures.''
But we do. And, in part, it's such thinking that is behind the enormously difficult struggle over public-school enrollments. Apparently, some of us fear more than we respect our differences - particularly when these differences are ones of color, race, creed; i.e., cultural heritage.
The principal of a primary school in the deep South of the US, (Mobile, Ala.) spoke with feeling of the struggle she had when first Negro children (as she still refers to them, saying that she ''hates the word black'') came to her school. At the same time, half her white teachers were transferred out of her school and a half dozen black teachers (''she'd had no hand in choosing'') were assigned to her building by ''downtown.''
''But I love children,'' she explained. ''And I had no reason to hate these new little ones; no reason to fear them, either.''
A pause - ''I couldn't accept their parents, nor socialize with the 'new' teachers.''
That all happened five years before I arrived at her school, and she was sharing past thoughts and feelings. She then spoke of the present:
''The white teachers don't socialize with the others outside school hours, but we're one big family here. We love our parents - a lot of them grandparents - and we don't even think of color, just of abilities and individual characteristics.''
Then, to make sure I understood what had happened to heal all thought of ''too many cultures,'' she added, ''If a teacher speaks to me about needing to discipline one of the children, I never think of their color, what I think of is why they got in trouble, and how to help them the best.''
Yet in a large city in the Northeast, some five years later, I talked with the principal of a school recently ''forced'' to desegregate. In his case, 400 whites were bused out and 400 blacks were bused in.
''No,'' he declared emphatically, ''we don't do anything to make them feel at home here. This isn't their home.
''No, we're not planning to hold any sensitivity sessions with the teachers.
''No, we haven't looked into getting social studies textbooks which would help the kids understand each others' cultures better.''
He paused then thinking, apparently, of a reason why ''we'' shouldn't learn about ''their'' culture. ''They need to learn our ways, and they don't need a book to do that. We tell 'em and tell 'em and tell 'em.''
But we do need to understand each other better. And unfortunately the attitude of this principal is far more widespread than many would like to admit.
We do need workshops, seminars, and teacher training exploring cultural diversity.
We do need better textbooks to help us get past stereotypes and prejudices.
We need to be sure that our faculty mix is a cultural mix, and that just as we welcome the beauty and integrity of a glorious forest made up of thousands of individual trees of every type and kind, we welcome such diversity in our schools and colleges.
We not only welcome diversity, but actively seek such.
And instead of lawsuits and countersuits and schools in receivership and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on legal fees looking for loopholes in desegregation requirements, we should expend even more energy and money on ways to achieve a glorious cultural mix wherever possible.
''Too many cultures'' indeed!