Sunday, January 18, 2004

Helping children see similarities

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Chris Flanagan teaches fifth grade at Whitaker Elementary School in Finneytown.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
Growing up blind to skin color was easy for Chris Flanagan, a fifth-grade teacher at Finneytown's Whitaker Elementary School.

In Vermont, his home state, nearly everyone looked like him.

Only one in every 200 people in Vermont is black. Flanagan, 31, can barely remember meeting anyone who was not white, except one African-American boy on his Little League team.

Flanagan was a 20-year-old college student when he learned the harsh realities of racism and left school to work at a day-care center for African-American children in Selma, Ala.

"I had never encountered the kind of blatant racism I saw in the South," Flanagan said.

Today, though, he looks across his classroom and sees children of all races, children who live in comfortable middle-class homes, and children who live in government-subsidized housing.

It is exactly where he wants to be.

"I came here for a reason," Flanagan said. "I came here because it is a diverse school district, a place where I can help kids from different backgrounds see how much they have in common. It is the kind of place where I want my own 2-year-old son to go to school someday.

"Racism is a learned thing," Flanagan said. "We have an opportunity with these kids. They don't have to learn to hate. They play ball together. They perform in the school band together. They learn to live with each other. That's what Dr. King was talking about."

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