Woog's World: Essays on cafeteria diversity yield plenty of food for thought
Published 6:42 am, Friday, April 10, 2015
Martin Luther King said that 11 a.m. Sunday was the most segregated hour of the American week. He was, of course, referring to the segregation of white and black churches.
But 11 a.m. weekdays may be the most segregated hour in American schools. That's lunchtime -- and day after day, week after week, the same friends sit at the same tables.
In Westport, the separation is not racial or religious. Instead, it is segregation by friend groups. This year, TEAM Westport -- the town's official committee on multiculturalism -- took that seemingly minor, often-overlooked tradition, and made it the basis of its annual Teen Diversity Essay Contest.
Westport students -- and those living here, but attending school elsewhere -- were asked to write about cafeteria barriers, and explore ideas for breaking them down.
On Monday, TEAM Westport Chairman Harold Bailey announced the winners. First place went to Jacob Klegar. His entry showed the universality of the issue: He's a junior at the prestigious Choate Rosemary Hall private school in Wallingford.
This was his first year there. A newcomer, he was struck by two things: there are tables where black, white, Asian, Hispanic and Middle Eastern students all mix together, and others filled with "Chinese nationals speaking in rapid Mandarin (or) a cluster of white hockey players."
People sit together, Jacob noted, because of "shared passions, activities and sports," as well as "shared customs, traditions, language, and just plain looking alike." If it is easier, he wrote, "to befriend other Hispanic students than to find fellow bookworms," then self-segregated tables will emerge.
Jacob lauded Choate for its diverse student body. With a third of its populations identifying as students of color, minorities do not stand out as "other." In just a few months at his new school, he wrote, he has become more "color blind."
Still, he said, challenges remain. Choate's rowing and hockey teams are predominantly white; the math team is almost entirely Chinese, while the Step Squad is 95 percent black. He'd like to see efforts made to encourage students to try new sports and clubs -- an open "trial period," rather than simply a club fair.
He is pleased that two boys -- one Chinese, the other Nigerian -- decided to room together because they became best friends on the tennis team. The more a school can bring students together through shared interests and connections -- whether it is sports, physics or Shakespeare -- the more genuine connections can be made, Jacob said.
Second-place essay winner Brendan Massoud is a Staples High School sophomore. He said: "Teenagers search for comfort. So while the cafeteria should be a place where students feel comfortable familiarizing themselves with others from various backgrounds, and with different experiences and viewpoints, it instead becomes a place of self-division based on those very differences."
People feel comfortable, he wrote, sitting with those "who are easy to identify as being similar, and with whom they perceive they have common experiences."
Brendan has an eclectic background. He is both Irish and Egyptian. But, he said, "because I am both light-skinned and have lived in a town that is 93 percent white for my entire life, I am only familiar with the predominantly white, New England suburb culture that defines Westport."
He has watched students who play sports separate themselves from those who are in choir. This division, he wrote, "is as unhealthy as division by race. The less time one spends with people who have other interests, the more that interest seems distant and foreign, and the more likely one is to perceive differences between themselves and others."
As a football and basketball player, Brendan is aware of stereotypes -- of his and other groups. He knows those stereotypes are untrue. Because his brother acts in Staples Players and sings in Orphenians, Brendan has gotten to know many people in those activities. He sees "how similar we all are." However, he said, that is not always the case.
To help bridge those gaps, Brendan proposed one day a week when students would mix together at lunch. He has pledged to do that himself, joining tables with students of a different "crowd" or ethnicity than his. He'll bring along a friend or two, further increasing the opportunities that come from meeting new people.
Jacob and Brendan are keen observers of Choate and Staples. They know what it's like to sit at self-segregated tables -- they've done it. Yet they've also thought about it, and wondered about all the implications.
Westport teenagers don't have much experience with the rage felt in Ferguson. They can't really relate to the debate raging nationally about immigration, or the reasons behind the Dream Act. But they do know their school cafeterias. And that's as good a place as any to start.