Recently I chaperoned my son’s 1st grade class on a field trip to an art museum. We marched, two by two toward the train and two by two on the fifteen minute walk from train to museum (this is Denmark, we walk, no chartered, cushy busses for us). As we tripped along I tried to remember an appropriate marching song, like the ditties the army employs, but the only ones I could think of were inappropriate for the ears of these pink-cheeked six and seven-year-olds. At the museum they sat criss-cross applesauce and listened to a woman tell them about a picture that looked as if it had been painted with spaghetti (it was string). They painted their own canvasses while draped in black, plastic smocks. They ate lunch in the cafeteria, trading giggles and bad, 1st grade jokes and then holding hands we marched back to the train, back to school. Two by two.
It was exhausting.
It was also uplifting.
What stood out to me that day, more than the lesson on modern art, more than the cheerful marching two by two, the little one stopped to tie his shoe–more than the crumb clearing, more than the gusto with which these little ones attacked a canvas, was their ready and willing ability to partner up with whoever their teacher assigned them to.
White, Australian Mia was paired with Dominican/Chilean Thomas and English Louis was paired with Ereyne from Gabon. Bi-racial Lya with her hair in gorgeous puffed bunches was with Canadian Gillian. East European Sofie, who has two siblings, skipped along with Italian Clelia, who also has two siblings, as well as two dads. Boy with girl, black with white, daughter of same-sex parents with daughter of different sex parents. I walked, keeping them out of the bike lane and making sure their coats were buttoned and shoelaces tied. I walked and I thought.
Holding hands, this marching group of kids didn’t stop to question. They didn’t second guess or judge or label. They have not yet started to view the person on the other end of their arm as different, as ‘they’, as ‘other’.
The recent events in Ferguson, MO have been weighing heavily on my heart and soul. I have, more than once, been tempted to sit and fume via words, rant in and out of sentences, about the multi-layered racial divide in the United States. I still may. But the other day my heart sang a song of gratitude, a silent soundtrack of We Shall Overcome as I watched these little ones go happily, obliviously about their day with nary a thought as to the color or sex of the person holding their hand. They were keen to connect to one another, to have that physical contact, to skip down the road. They wanted to hold hands. It was natural to them, it felt good.
It’s an oversimplification of course, but it’s simple for one reason: because it’s the truth. These kids haven’t been taught to question whose hand is in theirs as they walk down the street. They haven’t been programmed to ‘naturally’ flock to the fellow birds of their own feather. No one has sat down with them and said, either by word or example, that you should reject your fellow human based on the color of their skin or their sex or because their parents are gay. Kids naturally group together, like to like, but ‘same’ to them is just as likely to mean similar shoelace color as it is skin color. You can change your shoelaces. You can’t change the color of your skin.
They are not stupid, these first graders. They are not blind. They recognize differences: skin color, hair texture, eye color, language. They absorb those differences, question them at times, and then–here’s the key part–they move on. They move on because to them, the color of Eryene’s skin holds no more weight than Reed not liking bananas or Matthew wearing glasses. Differences that are noted and remembered, but not influential in any kind of social interaction. Imagine if your child came home and announced that he wasn’t going to play with so and so because she didn’t like apples, a completely arbitrary distinction. Is the color of someone’s skin any less arbitrary? When it becomes so, as it so often does, it is a lesson. And a lesson, by definition, is something which has been taught or learned. It is a lesson that these first graders, marching two by two, seemed to be unaware of.
The sun came out as we were walking home, a rare treat in these heavy, gray Danish days of late. Those little bodies threw long shadows onto the pavement in front of me. In shadow, you can’t differentiate between girl or boy, black or white, gay or straight. A fitting ending for the day. Tired, happy and even a little whiney, we all skip-danced back to school, holding hands with each other just because we wanted to. Because it felt good.