I loved living in Vienna, Austria. The excitement of a new culture was invigorating to me, and I soaked up every opportunity to assimilate myself into Austrian life. I found myself pretending I was a native, walking the streets as if I knew exactly what I was doing and where I was going. Most times, however, I hadn’t a clue. But the fun was in pretending.
For instance, there are very few massive catch-all stores. Most neighborhoods have a drug store, a grocery store and a bakery. You really can’t get your shampoo and your eggs in the same place, and I loved that. One of the biggest learning opportunities came when it was time to grocery shop. Cuisine was the biggest shock to my American way of life that I was trying to hide.
In my neighborhood grocer, I had about five kinds of sodas to choose from, and certainly no entire aisles devoted to chips as there is in America. For me, the indecisive one, I found the lack of variety refreshing. My shopping time was cut in half. In America’s massive stores full of choices, I ponder and contemplate, wonder and wander, and then ultimately decide not to get anything because I can’t decide.
I guess there are pros and cons to diversity.
Soda is one thing. People are quite another.
From the perspective of a hungry foreigner in an unfamiliar land, diversity means one thing. From the viewpoint of a public school teacher in a classroom, diversity means something very different.
I recently had a conversation with a fellow teacher-friend of mine about diversity in schools. We took turns reminiscing and longing for the good ‘ole days. She asked what I thought was the biggest difference between our experiences and what kids experience now. A loaded question, for sure.
My response focused around a simple word, experience.
Most of my warmest thoughts about school are not centered around well-developed, well-delivered lessons by my teachers. I don’t recall with fondness any State tests and bubble sheets. And I certainly don’t remember whose parents attended our band concerts or soccer games. These are the hot topics surrounding education today.
But what makes me smile about growing up in public schools are the experiences:
Sharing the bus with a doctor’s kid and wishing I had a pool like his. Passing John’s house with no grass and two cars on blocks, thanking God I had a yard to play in. Lisa’s parents paying for our new soccer uniforms. Wondering why Jennifer wore the same blue jeans almost every day. In World Geography class sitting next to the only pregnant girl in school. Parking my hand-me-down Toyota Corolla next to Chris Jenson’s brand new BMW. After a football game paying for Marcia’s McDonalds because she was a little short. Begging mom to buy me a Coca Cola rugby shirt because everyone had one.
My school was diverse. I sat next to Jed, who got an academic scholarship to Princeton, and Marlon, who got arrested for breaking and entering. Our faces were colorful and our pasts were sorted, but our paths were convergent, too. We sat next to each other and learned from each other. My education came from more than a collection of books. Mine was rooted in diversity and the many perspectives and experiences it offered, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.