Poised on a log suspended five feet above the ground, the teen-age girl stood with eyes closed and knees quaking as Tom King barked instructions.
She screamed as she fell stiffly backward into seeming nothingness. But a tapestry of arms broke her fall. And later she said she would gladly repeat the exercise.
“It’s designed to build trust,” said King, one of several directors at this secluded camp near Big Bear in the San Bernardino Mountains. Like other camp exercises, he said, the “trust fall"--in which participants fall backward into the arms of their friends--forces the realization of human interdependence. And like the other exercises, it requires courage to complete.
Courage and interdependence were among the themes of a recent weekend human relations workshop here dealing with problems related to the increasing ethnic and cultural diversity in the Long Beach Unified School District.
How to Revel in Racial, Cultural Differences
Participants in the event consisted of 130 Long Beach high school students representing a carefully balanced mixture of races, creeds and cultures as well as sexes. Its purpose: to teach them how to revel, rather than despair, in their differences.
“We believe that America should fulfill its destiny by becoming a model pluralistic society,” said Gene Lentzner, president of the Long Beach chapter of the National Conference of Christian and Jews, which co-sponsored the event. “We believe the strength of the country lies in its pluralism.”
That pluralism has become increasingly evident in Long Beach, where a survey last year indicated that white students comprise only 39.6% of the school district’s 64,000 students. According to the same survey, Latinos constitute 23.7%, blacks 19.3% and Asians 16.9%.
Those numbers contrast sharply with the figures of 20 years ago, when 87.1% of the district’s students were white, 6.1% black, 4.5% Latino and only 2.3% Asian.
Over the years, the district has responded to the potential--and sometimes real--tensions resulting from these demographic changes in several ways.
About 15 years ago, local teachers developed a special human relations curriculum for use in the district’s junior and senior high school social studies classes. In 1972, school administrators, alarmed by racial tensions at Poly High School, created Poly North, an annual two-day human relations retreat still attended by nearly half of the school’s sophomores at Camp Oakes.
And last year, for the first time, the district expanded the concept to include selected students from all five Long Beach high schools who came together during a separate weekend put on by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. A nonprofit national organization with some 500 members in the Long Beach area, the group sponsors a variety of activities designed to promote racial, ethnic, religious and sexual harmony.
Retreat Ends With Hugs, Tears
This year’s retreat began on a Friday evening with shy smiles and furtive glances and ended on Sunday afternoon with hugs and tears. In between, participants partook in a variety of activities ranging from the trust fall to small sharing groups focusing on personal problems.
In one activity, groups--divided according to schools--were taken out into the woods and given a problem. They were to imagine that they were stranded, the students were told. How would they work together to survive?
Another activity involved having students give imaginary gifts to each other consisting of qualities deemed by the giver to be of value to the receiver. And in yet another, participants were told to create and share abstract
drawings depicting the major themes of their lives.
The purpose of it all, said Dean Gilbert, a biology teacher at Poly High School and co-director of the weekend retreat, was twofold: to help students feel good about themselves, and to help them feel good about each other.
“There are major communication gaps between the schools,” Gilbert said, “as well as problems within each school of bigotry, cliques and sexual harassment.”
Toy Porter, a junior at Wilson High School, said members of various racial and ethnic groups on her campus rarely interact socially.
“We’re all from the same school and we don’t even know each other,” Porter, who is black, said of the Wilson contingent at the retreat. “It’s a problem. It makes you feel bad about yourself.”
Added Susie Platt, a white cheerleader at the same school: “There’s lots of prejudice. If I’d seen (these kids) at a football game, I’d never have talked to them.”
During separate school meetings, in fact, the students identified a number of human relations problems on their respective campuses, including a lack of interaction between various racial and ethnic groups, a lack of communication between students of all ethnic groups and their teachers, as well as a variety and informal racial, ethnic and gender discrimination by campus clubs.
Human Relations Issues
Retreat organizers said that they hoped the students would work toward solving the problems by, among other things, forming human relations clubs on their respective campuses to deal with such issues on an ongoing basis.
Several teachers and activities directors in attendance, in fact, said that they planned to help their students articulate specific plans of action to ensure that the message of tolerance and mutual respect would not be lost once the weekend was over.
“Hopefully this will have some lasting value,” said Greg Stone, activities director at Millikan.
Said Hank Garcia, assistant superintendent of secondary education for the district: “We think this is a valuable activity. We hope the kids are going to make friends.”
Selected by their teachers to provide a balance of race, ethnic background, sex, religion and level of school involvement, participants paid $5 apiece for the weekend experience, which--supplemented by bus transportation and insurance donated by the school district--cost the local chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews about $100 to put on.
Excitement Worth Seeing
Conference staffers said it was worth it just to see the excitement on the kids’ faces when it was all over.
“I wish everyone in the world could experience this,” said Suzanne Nowell, a 17-year-old Lakewood High School student who is black. “People here don’t treat you as black, a Latino or an Asian--but as a human being. It’s something you can take back and never forget.”
“I’m going to start making friends with Asians,” vowed Pearl Lawson, 15, a black Millikan student. “They’re coming over here (to America) and we should make them feel welcome.”
But 16-year-old Jennifer Goldman--white and Jewish--had some misgivings about where it would all lead.
“I’m depressed,” she said on Sunday afternoon between hugs as the weekend neared its end. Despite the vows of teachers and students to take their new-found spirit “down the hill” with them, Goldman said she had doubts about whether that would happen.
“There’s a magic here that we won’t have when we go back home,” she said. “I don’t want to leave.”