CiS Edison/Delano Exchange

During the first week of May this year, fifty students stepped into one another’s lives for a few hours over two days, twenty-two of them from a very inner city school in northeast Minneapolis and twenty-eight from a small rural town now turning into a metropolitan bedroom community thirty some miles to the west. In the short time they spent together, following counterparts through a few classes, eating lunch together, and talking and listening to each other in follow up sessions, they were able to accomplish what seems beyond our leadership. The teenagers figured out what people who spend a little time getting to know one another usually seem to figure out; they have much more in common than they have in difference.

The exchange between Edison and Delano has happened the last two springs. It has been carried out with the College in the Schools writing and literature classes of the two schools. Its initial purpose was and remains an academic one. Interacting with people who are culturally different will allow students to expand their scope as they research and read about cultures. Cultures are complex interactions of values, language and traditions played out in an attempt to be safe, secure and perhaps comfortable in a challenging world. We all live in various cultures, sub-cultures and micro-cultures. We know that if we only have a limited set of experience in cultural settings, we will only have a limited understanding of the world. We will only have one way of seeing people and will only be able to understand them and their actions in our limited context.

Helping students better understand their world, College in the Schools courses are directed to expanding the students’ world view. The writing students research and compose an ethnography, an in depth study of a micro-culture. These students have a chance to practice the art of getting inside other people’s “closed” worlds through the exchange. The literature students read Arundhati Roy’s novel “The God of Small Things,” which examines cultural conflicts and issues set in Kerala, Indian. Since the literature students need to open up the differences and cultural conflicts in the novel, they can examine those in the light of their experience confronting the presumed differences our two school groups held prior to the exchange. This will help them understand the unresolved cultural differences in the novel.

Since the two schools represent distinctly different cultural milieus, the exchange became an opportunity to encounter cultural difference with a human face. The students got to expand their perspective to better study and understand how difference can be both enriching and troubling. However, the students accomplished much more. In the process of talking and listening to each other, they generally concluded an important understanding about what we must do if we really want to live together.

At the end of the second day’s follow up discussion session, it had become clear that opening up and talking about home life and personal experience was a source of surprise to some and puzzlement to others. The very diverse city kids opened up about family configurations and expectations, and their feelings about these, revealing considerable differences from one student to the next. They seemed comfortable with difference. Though more limited than the conversations that go on in their classrooms, this openness was surprising to the students from the small town. Conversely, the reticence of the kids from the exurbs to discuss much about their private lives could have come right from a Lake Woebegone routine. That puzzled the city students. The students were examining this phenomenon in a rich dialogue as the time was running out.

With this the only seemingly significant difference out on the floor, students were asked to say what they thought would happen if people don’t talk about such things and what they felt they were taking away from the two days together. The answers were often the same. They were simple, clear and powerful:

“Talking is learning.”

“We need to know about one another.”

“If we don’t talk, we remain divided.”

“We’re all mostly alike. We’re all high school students. We do the same things.”

The students from both schools laugh at what by now looked like foolish preconceptions of the others, but they left with a profound insight into human relations. To get the Edison students back on the bus took considerable prying loose. Emails and numbers were exchanged with promises to stay in touch. The consensus on the bus ride back into town was to say thank you for this exchange.

 

How is it that fifty high school students can reach this level of understanding, this elevation of human dignity in just a few hours over two days? How could they engage so amicably with people they had always thought so alien in this sort of process and walk away having made new friends? How could these kids talking among themselves reach such a morally good understanding about human beings and grow in that process? How could that happen when our leaders seem so bent on dividing us and building walls between communities? A handful of teenagers could tear down those walls in a matter of minutes.