My first impression of my urban high school at the age of 16 came in my guidance counselor’s office at my orientation. My family had just moved from a very small, very white town earlier that summer. My counselor felt the need to give me some background on the student body of the school.
“You’re going to experience quite a culture shock,” he said. He went on to tell me this was a very diverse school, but he was eager to add that there was no gang activity there, citing a lone example of a group of kids that had made a habit of rolling up one pant leg. He insisted that the administration had quickly put that to rest.
“Keep your head up, look assertive, and you’ll be fine,” he added. I can only imagine what my poor mother was thinking as she sat next to me.
This man clearly thought that he was doing me a favor my telling me to be on my guard. Instead, he was perpetuating a whole slew of stereotypes. Why did he assume that he needed to say these things to me? Did he think I couldn’t deal with kids who were different from me? Who were poorer than me? Did he expect me to become a victim in this situation because I was white?
It’s hard not to see the latent racism and ignorance in his words. For all I know, this was a decent man who had spent over 30 years counseling kids. He had probably seen the school and its student body change a lot. More poor families, more immigrant families, fewer white families. But why assume that a scrawny white girl from Northern Michigan would have a hard time flourishing in a diverse urban environment?
I went on to make friends with a lot of kids who were quite different from me in many ways. My life has been much richer for it. I don’t think I was a uniquely kind or open-minded teenager. Rather, my happiness and success were thanks to the kids at that school who were kind and friendly enough to want to be friends with the new kid.
Children are so perceptive, and they pick up on so many of the thoughts and emotions of adults. However, it’s also possible that they choose not to adopt the ignorant notions of older generations.
When I think back on that moment, the most difficult part for me to deal with is the fact that I wasn’t the one who was harmed in that exchange. Instead, that mentality harmed the minority kids at my school. I was 16 years old and I was already scared to be starting at a new school anyway. His planting of that suspicion of my fellow students in my head was nothing but destructive. In a different situation, that suspicion may have turned into an ignorance to match his. I’m so thankful that the diverse student body and group of teachers were welcoming enough to dispel those suspicions.
I’ve come to understand, though, that I had no reason to expect anything other than kindness. We send kids to school so that they learn to engage with other kids and become a community of learners. Growth doesn’t come from exposure to people just like ourselves. It comes from working with people who are different. There’s no reason to lead kids to believe that they won’t be able to handle those differences. Doing so only perpetuates ignorance, fear, and self-segregation. And worse yet, minority kids are always the ones that are harmed, not the white students who are told to be cautious and vigilant.