We can all describe lemons: yellow, round, shiny, soft, pungent, acidic, sour. They grow on trees. They're fruit. They make you pucker. With enough sugar added, they're good for lemonade. Someone might even note that they're put in drinking water in fancy restaurants.
But could you pick out your lemon from a batch of 15? We may understand lemons as a species perfectly without knowing a particular lemon well. Or vice versa.
Lemons were on the menu when Thom Harnett, Maine's assistant attorney general for civil rights, visited the school of which I'm principal. In one of three different class sessions, he gave each fourth- and fifth-grader a lemon. "Get to know your lemon," he said. "Be one with your lemon."
The class had already brainstormed the list of those generic lemon qualities, but getting familiar with a particular lemon required different eyes. And when Mr. Harnett collected all the lemons in a box, we had to think hard to remember what exactly distinguished "my" lemon from "your" lemon. How well had we gotten acquainted?
Then came the acid test: "Find your lemon in the box."
For a few brief moments, there was a scrum. However, everyone successfully retrieved his or her personal lemon. All lemons do not look alike.
Then a very different list of qualities appeared on the blackboard, as the class brainstormed words for the now-unique lemons.
First of all, the yellow fruit became "my lemon." Maybe it had a little "thingy" on top, a blemish near the middle, a brown spot, a bump, even a name. "Naming helps," said Jen. So we had Bob and Chester Lemon. Now it's personal.
Harnett's exercise was a perfect metaphor for how we make snap judgments and definitions versus intimate knowing and deeper understanding.
In fact, he spends a lot of time in court using the Maine civil rights statute to correct the effects of inappropriate or illegal judgments based on gender, religion, race, language, or national origin. And he spends a lot of time in schools helping kids make appropriate judgments based on character and respect. His visit to us was naturally aligned with Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The lemon exercise reminded me of a poem by William Stafford, "A Ritual to Read to Each Other." He writes:
If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the
and following the wrong god home we may
miss our star.
When he met with the sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders, Harnett made some more specific points about these patterns that we often allow to prevail. He shared some effective videos made by middle and high school students in Maine talking about knowing and not knowing what kind of person might be sitting next to them.
There was a quiet Somali girl describing how she had been spit on and told she didn't belong and a senior honors student who endured years of bigoted name-calling.
My favorite story was about a 7-year-old African-American girl who hated going to school because she was harassed on the bus by high school juniors. Harnett got a call from her parent and arranged for meetings with school officials and the bus company.
But it was another 7-year-old who solved the problem. When the taunting and bullying started up one day, she walked up to the big bullies and addressed them. "She's my friend. Names hurt," she told them. Case closed. Who can argue with a brave second-grader?
In his stories about civil rights cases, Harnett described some pretty awful behavior. But it's words like "bravery," "courage," and "individual" that formed the lasting impression – stories of the strength of a single person to turn things around, once they had an accurate judgment of what's right.
He may win the court case, but Harnett often feels dissatisfied with that outcome. After all, the damage has already been done. That's one reason he brings lemons to schools around the state and focuses on the power of education to thwart discrimination and the use of those words that hurt.
Stafford summarizes the lesson:
For it is important that awake people
or a breaking line may discourage
them back to sleep;
the signals we give – yes or no, or
should be clear: the darkness around
us is deep.
Did you notice how quietly Stafford reminds us that we do indeed have a star to follow? I know a few kids who will never see a lemon the same way again.