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I stood in front of a fourth grade classroom, all eyes fixed on me. For some reason, I felt nervous, as if I were bare, exposing all my past secrets to the world of susceptible minds. I held up the book The Colors of Freedom, explaining that it was a collection of personal accounts focused on traversing cultural barriers. As I flipped through the book with quivering fingers, I saw from the corner of my eyes small hands rising up eagerly. One boy asked, “Why are people so mean?” In my mind, I could have gone off on many tangents, alluding to the Ku Klux Klan or the income gaps between white men and black women. However, I simply answered, “That is why we are here this morning.”
Suddenly, the wall I was leaning against felt colder, as if the plastered room turned into an ice chamber. For that chilling moment, my mind brought me unwillingly back to the age of ten. I now stood before the judging eyes of peers and felt bare once more. Were these cruel kids going to comment on my slanted eyes? Would I hold back tears to avoid further harassment? None of them seemed to understand the predicament I was shoved into when I first opened that classroom door, exposing this straight jet-black hair to ridicule. In fact, when following kids to the library after school to skateboard and ride bikes, I was called wounding names dubbing me the “guk” or “chink.” Here, I found myself suffocating in children’s laughter and drowning in seas of salty tears. No kid, I concluded, deserved this type of inhumane treatment.
Consequently, I have become a student ambassador of the American Connection program, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee in Bridgeport, CT. After reading and discussing novels that pertained to social adversity, we selected the four best books to teach younger generations of such struggles, in hopes of quelling discrimination. These texts would be distributed to the city’s schools and possibly even integrated into the curriculum as a required reading. Through coping with my own hurtful experiences, I have learned that the way to reduce discrimination aroused by cultural stereotypes is through sharing cultural distinctions in order to appreciate diversity.
As I attended the 2004 Mentor Connection Program at the University of Connecticut, I further underwent a process of healing past insecurities. After working and living closely with residents of suburbs, city-walkers, Korean twins, a Kenyan summer intern, and a pharmaceutical research professor of German descent, I comprehended the beauty in the concept of a “melting pot.” With this new appreciation, I then began to identify the enriching environment around me that the provincial minds of my once-fourth-grade peers would overlook: my local high school. Bridgeport Central is one of the most uniquely varied populations in the New England region. The years of exposure to this diverse setting have inevitably developed in me a more accepting outlook of different beliefs and backgrounds. From the largely diverse fencing team to the Spanish Honor Society, I have lived “multiculturalism.” My current efforts attempt to spread similar revelations throughout the community, ultimately to avoid childhood hindrances like mine.
As I continued to stand in front of the fourth-grade classroom that morning, I assured myself that these innocent kids did not deserve to be discriminated against for any predicaments. Evidently, children are capable of being cruel, and I knew that if each elementary classroom was to explore the selected donated books, the community would grow more in reception of diversity. As I looked out into the young faces, faces of ten-year-olds, I wished I were one of them. Their eyes looked so warm, which were different from the eyes that I was familiar with: some wide, some narrow, some green, some brown, but all so warm. As I pulled out the other three selected texts, I realized the potential impact of our efforts. If these kids were receptive to these attempts to promote a pride in diversity at an early age, they will grow into more tolerant individuals to eventually better the community.
As I concluded my presentation, I felt reassured to know that these kids would most likely stretch their once provincial minds and suggest dinner at the local Trinidadian restaurant, join in the Puerto Rican Day parade, buy an Italian ice at Micalizzi’s, or try some Thai cuisine on downtown Broad Street. It was then that I noticed that these brilliant eyes before me were a consummation of the American Connection program. Here, we have made the slightest difference in the perspectives of thirty young students, who will undoubtedly spread their new understanding of the “multicultural world” through their contagious energy. To acknowledge our efforts, we received letters after our visit. Written in attempted cursive that was either entirely too rigid or too exaggerated, every note concluded with the phrase, “Thank you.”
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