Difficult words, exchanged with care

Some of the 9th-graders in Jehanne Beaton's "Open" seminars have so much to say about race and ethnicity that they have to switch which arm is raised while waiting for a turn to talk.

The rainbow of Minneapolis's diverse population arcs right through Roosevelt High School. The student body is roughly 20 percent African-American, 10 percent Hispanic, 10 percent Asian-American, and 30 percent white and native American. The other 30 percent are Somalis. And some students, of course, blur the lines between racial and cultural groups.

It can be a volatile mix. But Ms. Beaton's new course, which started in January, is about exploring differences and creating relationships. Although it counts as a social-studies credit, Beaton draws on poetry, stories, and other literature to help students deal with the pushes and pulls of adolescence. The poem "Blink Your Eyes" by Sekou Sundiata, for example, had them contemplating how it feels to be treated badly because of "the skin you're living in."

"When kids go through this time in their lives, when they are becoming racially conscious, they have all this anger and frustration inside them, and if they don't have the words to put to these feelings, they blow up," Beaton says.

She grew up in the Minneapolis suburbs "feeling very bicultural" – her mother Hispanic and her father white. "As teachers, we [say] literature is so great because it provides windows and mirrors to kids.... I don't remember ever having mirrors as a kid, ever."

In college, she set out to study "the history of everybody who didn't make it into a textbook."

Now, her students are so comfortable that they talk about subjects that seem too difficult in other settings.

After a class in April, a cross-section of students stayed to discuss how literature has shaped their thoughts about race. Here are some of their comments:

Sandy Velazquez (Hispanic): I read this story about a Puerto Rican kid who didn't want to say the Pledge of Allegiance. And his Caucasian teacher was really mean to him.... And I think, 'Caucasian people, are they all bad?' But then I read another thing where I see a white person do a nice thing.... Literature does affect you, especially if you love that story. I've been becoming more nice to people of all cultures.

Elizabeth Kamara (African-American): I like to get to know different people's backgrounds.... [But] when we read or talk about race, I just get mad sometimes. If we read a story about slavery, it makes me feel angry. It is necessary, though. It's good ... even though I don't like to talk about it.

Ashley Sivoravong (white and Asian): In a lot of the discussions, my feelings do get hurt. People can tell when I get angry, and I argue. Sometimes I make excuses for them, for why people treat me that way, because I don't want to believe that they are bad. They are taught to think a certain way. From the time you come into this world, you're taught.

Jory Isenhower (white): I get mad about racial stuff [being talked about a lot]. I think people bring up a lot from the past. I think people drag their personal experiences into things.... People are looking for fights sometimes.

[But the class discussion about] the riots [in Los Angeles] helped me realize why some people have tension. Literature helps open your eyes.

Antonio Washington (African-American): In here, you can talk about it because it's less stressful [compared with some other classrooms]. The readings [Ms. Beaton] picks out have all different kinds of conflicts. Plus, the way she runs it, it's structured so people aren't cutting each other off.

Ashley: When people are called gook, mutt, chink, that's so hurtful. So I can understand why it is offensive for people to call someone a nigger or a spic. Racism should be talked about.

Sandy: History class, it's not really diverse. We learn a lot about segregation, but why am I not learning my history, the role of Hispanics? I didn't even know about what happened to Japanese-Americans until Ms. Beaton taught me about that.

Antonio: We do talk about black-white issues a lot. Being a black male, I like to know about that history, but it makes white people feel not that good. But for black people, there are deep-seated emotions. And if you put it all aside, about slavery, there would be no history of us. If a white person calls me a nigger, it's going to be on the surface. You can't just say, 'Oh, slavery was a long time ago.'

Elizabeth: Sometimes, when I think of my life, I just wish the whole world was just one color. But I don't know... if everybody was white or everybody was black or if everybody was Mexican, it would be boring.... But [when my friends and I] go to a white restaurant, everybody's just staring at me and I feel really bad, like, 'Am I supposed to be here?

Antonio: I was reading Malcolm X's autobiography, and [it talks about] a lot of problems that are still here today.... Twenty, 30, 40 years later, as advanced as we say we are, how can we be so far behind racially?... You could see why [there were] all those riots and protests.... I just really liked the book. Things are changing, but not fast enough. Like, there's not that many black people in office..., they stereotype us as basketball players....

Amanda Epperson (white): I started noticing things, like how people shy away from certain people and are more comfortable with others. Now that I see it, I can think about how I can change it, and not be so different around other people.

Ashley: I read this story about girls of different races.... Sometimes you feel like you want to give up. You think, why don't I just act and look like everybody else. This girl in the story was so different, and she got so much criticism from people that at the end of the day she would just go home and cry. I feel like that too sometimes. It gave me hope. Literature makes me want to be myself.... If I feel like I can't relate to people and can't talk to anyone, a favorite book just calms me, makes me feel more human.

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