Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

Differences challenged

hpenner's picture

I grew up in a very small town in New York, where I attended a K-8 school of about 300 students. Since my town was so small, I wasn’t exposed to very much diversity growing up. Almost everyone I knew came from a white, upper-middle class to middle class, Christian family. In my grade of about thirty people there was one girl, named Angela*, who had severe autism. She was unable to speak and had a helper with her at all times. Angela was at our school from kindergarten all the way through eighth grade and our class grew up with her as a constant part of our lives. Although physically and mentally she was different than the rest of our class, her parents still sought to give her a fun and happy childhood. I can remember attending a lot of her birthday parties with my whole grade there and going to the movies with her sometimes in the summer. Of course, she always had her helper with her, but we all grew close to her as well.

Because our class was a very tight-knit group whenever new students came into our grade there was always some tension. Sometimes new students would come in and fit in right away, and sometimes there was a divide between them and the rest of our class. In the case of Michael*, a boy who joined our school in fourth grade, there was definitely a divide in our personalities. I never personally got to know Michael closely, but I often heard “gossip” about him from my other friends that talked to him. There was one incident at the beginning of the school year that stuck with me over the years, and I think inevitably contributed to the tension between our grade and him. One day my friend Sarah* came up to me on the playground and told me that Michael had called Angela a “retard,” and that she was “stupid and ugly.” While calling anyone those names is awful, we all felt it was especially awful because of how much we loved Angela and how we knew she was a sweet girl, and absolutely unable to defend herself.

I remember various people confronting Michael, who had an aggressive attitude about it and never backed away from his statements. Personally, I was a bystander during all of the encounters. Although I did not analyze the situation at the time, when I think back to it now it raises questions for me about the values that I was taught versus the values that Michael was taught, and how our environments affected those values. It also makes me reflect on the culture of my school community. I think the culture of my school community was heavily influenced by learning through Angela and embracing her and feeling a desire to protect her, as a friend and classmate. Children, at a young age, are sometimes not introduced to diversity in the way that we were and that is most likely why Michael viewed Angela in such a different way. I think it also  made me realize how people coming into a small community bring with them different outlooks, opinions, and have the ability to change dynamics. 


*Names were changed