AMERICA used to be called a melting pot. Today some people call it a salad bowl. Different ethnic and racial groups retain their own distinct identities when tossed together, but if the salad dressing works its magic as it should, the taste of the whole is better than the sum of its parts.
How do you get the magic to work in inner-city neighborhoods? At Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, D.C., students and teachers are trying - not with 100 percent success, but enough to assure them that they are on the right track.
Taken as a whole, Washington's school population is overwhelmingly black, but at Bell the dominant language heard in the corridors is Spanish. Half of the 550 students are Hispanic and the rest are a rich cocktail of black, yellow, and brown - African, Caribbean, Asian, and African-American.
Luis Pozo, from El Salvador, is a survivor of that country's bloody civil war. His oldest brother was killed by contras; some of his friends are still in jail. Nineteen years old, he lives with his older brother; his parents remain in El Salvador. To support himself, he works six and a half hours every day as a cleaner at a naval hospital.
But Luis has thrown himself zestfully into Bell's multicultural atmosphere. He is taking Russian - "because I like challenges." His best friend is a Nicaraguan; he's also made friends with Chinese, Nigerians, and other Africans.
"You learn the culture, the customs of these people, and you learn something new, it's like some ingredient that you can add to your culture, something that can make my culture better," he says. The American dream is alive and well with Luis: He wants to go on to college and become a mechanical engineer.
ADRIAN KIRK, an African-American born in Washington, has mastered Spanish and uses it to teach two groups of students - African-Americans who want to learn Spanish, and Hispanics long deprived of education who need academic skills. The native Spanish speakers help African-Americans with their language, and the African-Americans help the Latin-Americans with learning skills - mathematic concepts, how to follow a schedule, how to do homework.
In math, says Brett Berliner, "a very strong El Salvadoran may be helping a weak African-American" - and vice versa. Berliner, one of the school's few white American teachers, keeps open house in his classroom during lunch hour, where he counsels students hoping to go on to college. On a typical day, he might be teaching how to write a research paper to an Ethiopian, a Senegalese, a Salvadoran, and a black American. Each student brings his or her own food, "and we're all sitting together in a group and w e [are] doing a research paper. I can't say when that's going to happen. Kids come when they want, when they have the need." More than 60 percent of Bell's students have college as their goal - a far higher percentage than in most inner-city high schools.
Adrian Kirk tells of an African-American girl who had discipline problems in schools she attended in the past. Deciding to take up volleyball, she found herself on a team composed entirely of Spanish speakers except for herself and a Brazilian. To figure out what was going on, she needed tremendous reserves of patience, which she had never shown before. Today she is an accepted member of the team.
All right, you may say, these are just anecdotes of achievements won in structured situations - the classroom and the gym. Bell's teachers know that a great deal more is required to fulfill the school's motto of "Unity in Diversity." In many schools, multiculturalism remains a fad featuring exotic languages and celebrating exotic ethnic festivals.
Still, the classroom and the gym are natural places to begin breaking down ethnic and racial stereotypes. Some black parents send their children to Bell because they want them to experience the diversity that so many inner-city schools - or suburban schools, for that matter - lack. They thereby learn that grappling with racism is not just a matter of the black-white divide.