THE SIMPSON LEGACY : Just Under the Skin : Teachers of the '90s Tackle the Issue of Race Head-On : As the Ticking Gets Louder, Trying to Inoculate Children Against Bigotry Is a Race Against the Clock

TIMES URBAN AFFAIRS WRITER

Randy Haege spreads a fan of construction paper before a roomful of eager fifth-graders whose faces are a living color wheel of black, brown, yellow, white and every shade in between.

There is paper of burnt umber and bronze, gold ocher and taupe, coffee and portrait pink; paper of raw sienna and sandalwood, terra-cotta and copper, almond and peach.

There are colors enough for all 26 children in Haege's class at the Anatola Avenue Elementary School in Van Nuys, who are making masks of their faces. There is a mirror on the wall to help them choose the colors. All this because Haege wants the skin color just right.

"Take a moment to think about it," the teacher tells them. "Look in the mirror. Hold your hands in a circle and compare. Now, I don't want any put-downs. But I do want us to try and get as close as we can to who we really are."

Once upon a time, no one bothered to produce a rainbow of colored paper for children's self-portraits. Once upon a time, adults corrected the manners of a youngster who dared mention race. But those days are long gone in Los Angeles, where nearly nine out of 10 schoolchildren are nonwhite and teaching tolerance is a desperate preoccupation.

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And so teachers such as Haege are talking bluntly to children about race and ethnicity, encouraging them to learn each other's ways and arming them with values and skills for living peaceably in a city that has become a centrifuge of racial tension.

At Anatola, in a lower middle class San Fernando Valley neighborhood, that work is being done with particular vigor because of Kiyo Fukumoto, the school's Japanese American principal, who spent the first five years of his life in an internment camp in Heart Mountain, Wyo., and the last 30 years promoting multicultural education for the city's schoolchildren.

Fukumoto has the conviction of a true believer. He knows the challenge for a child entering school with no English. He has felt the sting of racial barbs. He has studied the scholarly literature of prejudice. His task, as he sees it, is not to tell the children at Anatola how to coexist in harmony but to show them that they can. "In order for them to feel closeness, friendship, they have to live it," Fukumoto said. "They have to play with each other, enjoy each other, help each other. That's real. That's what it takes for them to have a lifelong understanding."

Anatola is a better laboratory than most for this daunting experiment, which, if successful, could point the way to improved race relations for a fractured city and a confounded nation.

Unlike many others schools in the gargantuan Los Angeles Unified School District, it is an intimate place with 375 children, all of them from the neighborhood. Although they speak an array of languages, represent many races and creeds, and hail from all over the world, they have much in common. There is no busing here, no separate classrooms where youngsters are taught in their native language, no wide differences between rich and poor.

But even at Anatola, inoculating children against bigotry is a race against a clock that many education experts say ticks loudest in the fifth grade, before the dangerous passage from elementary to middle school. There, the structure of the school day robs children of intimate adult attention, the pressures of adolescence force them to band together with their peers and once harmless racial differences can set the stage for gang mayhem.

Fukumoto and his teachers are, at best, guardedly optimistic, and they know they are swimming against a tide that may be stronger than their best efforts.

"At our level, we might have a chance to do something," said the 54-year-old principal. "But once they leave us, it is a question mark because there are so many forces bearing down on them."

In the 12 classrooms at Anatola, at the outdoor lunch tables and on the barren asphalt schoolyard, these children seem to get along nicely, working in racially mixed teams and playing in heterogeneous groups without prodding from adults.

To be sure, there are squabbles and name-calling. But the children say that the words that sting most are not about their race or ethnicity, but the timeworn barbs about appearance and status.

For Janessa Ramos, a fifth-grader of Mexican descent, the meanest thing another child can call her is "four eyes" or "retard." For Nancy Clavel, whose parents come from El Salvador, it's "fatso." Nanaz Heidari, from Iran, resents remarks about her hairy legs. Crystal Pazos, from Peru, balks at "shorty." Junior Garcia, from Mexico, hates suggestions that his shoes come from PayLess.

Yes, the children say, the nastiness is sometimes racial: Students get called nigger, white-ass or brownie. Those who can't speak English are labeled stupid. Those who can't speak Spanish are ridiculed in a language they don't understand. The Latino children, who represent a slim majority at Anatola, are sometimes accused of causing all the trouble in California.

But, in this age group, racial epithets are used interchangeably with garden-variety insults, experts say, and carry no special sting.

"Unless they're living in a community with very high levels of polarization, they learn these names but attach no special meaning to them," said Pedro Noguera, an assistant professor of education at UC Berkeley. "Other words can be much more demeaning."

Special education teacher Jean Miraglia cited two examples of children hurling racial insults, learned at home or on television, that they barely understood.

One boy, of Hawaiian and black ancestry, heard his mother accuse the maid of stealing and arrived at school the next day to announce that Mexicans were no good. The teacher pointed out to him that his best pal was Mexican. "He had no idea," Miraglia said and reconsidered the stereotype once he did.

Another boy, a World War II buff, rejected a Korean playmate after seeing a documentary about the Japanese war effort. "Why?" the teacher asked him. "Because he has slanty eyes," came the reply.

"So how come you're friends with Nancy? She's Japanese," Miraglia asked. Then she prodded the boy to think harder. "Aren't you part Russian?" she asked him. "Does that make you a communist?" The child was taken aback. "No," he blurted. "I'm American."

There are other impromptu moments when a child is leveled by a perceived racial slight.

In Haege's fifth-grade class, Jimmy Nasim, an Afghan, was writing an essay on his favorite athletes and did not know how to spell the name of Dodger pitcher Hideo Nomo. He turned for help to Klaire DeLeon, a Filipina. Thinking he had singled her out because she was Asian, Klaire collapsed in tears.

Sometimes the unintended insult comes from a teacher. In Susan Jennings' fourth-grade class, children were asked once to compare their skin color, to persuade them that they were all different on the outside but very similar on the inside.

"Look around the room," Jennings urged the children. "Can you find somebody who has exactly the same skin shade as you? And I mean exactly !"

Her point was lost on Tracy Ademisove, a coal-black child whose parents come from Nigeria. Tracy dropped her head to her desk and shook with sobs.

"Look around, Tracy! Look around!" the kindly teacher begged, as the child wiped her nose on her red sweater. "Look at all the people beside you who have no match!"

But racial episodes like these in elementary school are benign, education experts say, compared to what children encounter in middle school, when they are less in the sway of adults and more influenced by their peers. At the same time, experts say, they grow more sensitive to racism, perhaps because of unpleasant or confusing encounters with police officers, immigration officials or school authorities. In that context, racial remarks that meant little begin to resonate.

In advance of that Rubicon, there are many different lessons taught at Anatola about tolerance and civility. One is the principal's baby, called ABCs--or Anatola's Best Citizens, in which a few dozen fourth- and fifth-graders are designated playground peacemakers, mediating disputes and setting an example for the younger children.

"It helps them relate in a positive way," Fukumoto said.

Except for the ABCs program, which the principal personally manages, the Anatola teachers have broad latitude to teach the lessons of tolerance their way.

In Betty Cobb's first-grade class that means singing "The World's a Rainbow" and displaying Native American baskets, Japanese bowls and Mexican dolls. In Jenning's fourth-grade class, it means discussing which countries are closer to the Equator and how people who live there have darker skin to protect them from the sun.

And in Haege's fifth-grade class, it means a relentless series of exercises about the ways people are different and the ways they are similar. "Diversity and similarity, diversity and similarity," the teacher intones. "Roll those words around in your mouth. Get used to them."

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In one of the exercises, Haege brings Janessa Ramos to the front of the room to stand beside him. How are the two of them different and how are they the same, the teacher asks? The youngsters reel off what separates them: Gender, age, race, height, marital status, age. And what they have in common: Both wear glasses. Both are mammals. Both have parents. Both like pizza.

Then Haege assigns homework, a composition exploring whether "diversity is a bad thing or a good thing," whether the world would be a better place if everybody was the same. It was clearly a topic the children had discussed before and they were in wide agreement that homogeneity would be boring.

"If everybody be the same the whole entire world will be boring," wrote Edwin Cruz, in a typical essay. "Everybody will have the same T-shirt, pants, shoes, watch, hair, pencils, erasers, book. They will have the same hobby. Everybody will have the same video games. Everybody will like the same food. Everybody will work the same job. Everybody will have the same things. For example, the same bicycle, backpack, colored pencils, bed and a lot of other things. That will make the whole entire world boring. That's why God made us different."

Susan Jennings took the same tilt with her fourth-graders. First, the whole class compared skin color to see if any two children were exactly the same. The room, for a few moments, was a swirl of little bodies, fiercely competing.

"I'm darker!" one insisted.

"No you're not; there were shadows," another replied.

The moral, Jennings told them, was that everyone was different on the outside but had the same needs inside. And what were those needs, she asked them? Food. Water. Shelter. Sun. Doctors. Each other. She beamed at the last answer.

Then Jennings divided them into groups--multicultural, of course--and asked them to brainstorm all the reasons they got along. Because we want to help other people, the children said. Because America is where freedom started. Because all of us are special. Because we want to learn about each other. Because if the world fights, we may die. Because we all have open hearts.

Again, the answers brought a glow to Jennings' face.

Lessons such as these have not been systematically evaluated, education experts say, although they have gained in popularity here since the 1992 riots.

"There was a terrible crisis in our city and everybody figured, 'Oh my God,' " said Nancy Nedell Harding, a Ph.D. candidate at UCLA who is studying racial attitudes in grade school children.

Despite the absence of data, there seems to be wide agreement that such lessons can be effective deterrents against racism. In interviews with a dozen education experts, most endorsed the view of Pedro Noguera at UC Berkeley, who said that schools that address these issues fare better than those that don't, even if the lessons seem contrived.

"The approach in the past was to encourage colorblindness," Noguera said. "Increasingly, educators realize that kids do see it. The question is what meaning they attach to it."

And that meaning changes over time. Thus a visit to a junior high school may be instructive.

Many of the children at Anatola Elementary School continue their education less than a mile away, at Mulholland Middle School, a vast complex of 1,400 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, where recruiters from the Haskell Street gang and the Brown Brothers of America sometimes lurk outside the gates.

Because of the difficult transition from elementary to middle school, the sixth-graders at Mulholland are treated differently than the older students, said Principal Alfredo Tarin. They move from class to class in teams rather than individually, have fewer teachers and attend their own dances and assemblies.

But by eighth grade, the harsh anonymity of middle school takes its toll, said Joshua Fishman, an Anatola graduate. "I'm called white boy here, white bread, white cracker," Joshua said. "But I don't get offended. I know I'm white."

Not offended, but more than a little uneasy. "In elementary school they call you white boy and then everybody runs off and plays," Joshua said. "Here, they call you white boy and then they stand and stare at you."

Joshua said children of different backgrounds rarely play together as they did in grade school, but rather divide up according to race or fashion statement, which the boy noted often coincides with race. And racial insults on the playground go unremarked upon by teachers or other adults in the hubbub of the larger school, which gives perpetrators license to continue.

"At Anatola if you say a bad word somebody would tell on you," he said. "Here, everybody says bad words.

"Anatola is like a little town in the middle of the woods," Joshua said with a wail of regret. "Everyone knows and cares about everyone. This is like New York or L.A. Here you fend for yourself."

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