Column: Let’s be perfectly clear about this

by Father Mark Goldasich

A second-grade teacher in an inner-city school often had to field questions that had nothing to do with the subject matter at hand. Rather than dampen her students’ curiosity, however, she saw these questions as opportunities for each student to comment on the subject and then make up his or her own mind.

One day the question of differences arose. The teacher asked the students if you could tell whether a tall man was good or bad. They agreed that you couldn’t, based only on the fact that he was tall. Ultimately, the class concluded that being different doesn’t make someone good or bad, it just makes that person different.

Then the teacher focused on class members and their personal differences. She noted that she was different because she was the tallest and lived in a different part of the city.

All of a sudden, one of the students blurted out, “Mrs. Eastman is different because she’s a different color.” That opened up a flood of comments: “Yeah, Mrs. Eastman is white.” “No, she’s peach.” “I think she’s really just bright brown.” “She’s creamy.” “She’s kinda yellow.” “She’s just really shiny.”

The teacher had the kids discuss the question in small groups. A short while later, a spokesperson said they’d reached an answer, but wanted Mrs. Eastman to tell them if the answer was right or not. She agreed. The kids had concluded that she was . . . clear.

Clear? What did that mean? The teacher was saved from commenting further by the bell for gym class. While they were gone, she reflected on how many times at dinners or parties, she was asked: “How many of your students are black? How many white children are in your class? Do you teach many Hispanics?”

More often than not, she didn’t really know. She realized that when she was teaching, she was teaching children, not colors. The same apparently was true for the kids: They only saw her as a person who cares about them, encourages them to do their best and makes them work hard.

When the kids returned from gym, they begged Mrs. Eastman to tell them if they’d been right or wrong with their earlier answer. She said, “Children, I have to tell you the truth. You are exactly right! I am clear.”

Now, when this teacher hears that question about the ethnic makeup of her class, she looks the questioner in the eye and answers, “Surprisingly, they’re all clear!” (Story adapted from “What Color Are You?” found on the Web site: www.inspirationaljournal. com.)

I have a sneaking suspicion that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been very proud of these second-graders. As we mark the holiday in his honor, it’s a good time for all of us to get our “differential” checked.

How many times do we dismiss others or demean them because they are different? A sure way to get a dispute going is to bring up the fact that you are a Jayhawk fan or a Wildcat fan or a (gasp) Tiger fan in these parts. Watch how quickly the lines are drawn. The same happens when people discuss their religious denomination, political affiliation, economic status, nationality, movie preferences, or any of a host of other items. Our differences bubble to the surface and color how we perceive each other.

What a challenge to see others as “clear.” What would happen to our discussions if we started with the presumption that each person is first and foremost a human being like ourselves? How would we treat one another if we realized that the things we desire for ourselves — health, blessings, shelter, nourishment, justice, understanding, etc. — are precisely what others desire as well? Would we approach the issues that divide us differently? Would we rediscover the concept of the common good?

Just as the differential gear in our car’s driving axles allow it to safely and smoothly make turns, so too an adjustment of our heart’s or nation’s “differential” could make a huge impact as we navigate the inevitable twists and turns of life. Perhaps a visit to a skilled mechanic, like Dr. King or those second-graders above, is long overdue . . . and sorely needed.

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