When 215 eighth-graders from seven prestigious private schools gathered for a "race relations summit" at Friends School, one girl raised a basic question.
"Is this meeting because something is happening?" the Garrison Forest School eighth-grader asked in a small-group session yesterday. "In our school there's not a lot of prejudice."
It took the eighth-graders -- with help from teachers, a speaker and older students -- all day to rough out an answer.
Unlike Baltimore's 1990 race relations summit, which inspired the gathering, no particular racial incident set the event in motion. It was just a concern that kids who lead sheltered lives realize that racial prejudice in America is their problem, too.
By day's end, the same Garrison Forest student said, "Everyone opened up and told their stories. I don't think we changed the world, but I think we helped each other."
An eighth-grader from Roland Park Country School added: "We started out saying there was no racism, but after three sessions we found lots of examples."
The seven private schools involved -- Boys' Latin, Friends, Garrison Forest, McDonogh, Park, Roland Park Country School and St. Paul's School for Girls -- have enrollments that are 8.5 percent black, 7 percent Asian and 1 percent Hispanic, according to the Association of Independent Maryland Schools.
Some minority Friends seniors told of struggling to find their places in predominantly white private schools -- at first rejecting, then embracing their racial or ethnic identities.
Shawn Peterson, who is black, recalled wanting at Friends "to be white so bad it bugged me. I hated rap music, and going to Mondawmin Mall was out of the question."
But, after taking part in an NAACP contest featuring gifted black youths, he found new racial pride.
"Be who you want to be and work for No. 1 -- that's all that matters," he said.
Carla Perry, a senior, was asked by an eighth-grader what she preferred to be called.
"I don't mind black American, African-American; I don't insist on either," she said. "But I like to be known as Carla, too."
The eighth-graders met in small groups to talk about prejudice, racism and stereotypes. To foster openness, they agreed to avoid "put-downs" and personal attacks. A reporter sat in on one group after it was agreed that the students in the group not be identified by name.
The talk eventually turned to personal,sometimes subtle experiences of racial prejudice.
A black girl from Park School said "people look at you funny" when you go to the movies with a racially mixed group of friends.
A white girl from Friends said that when she read aloud in class a racially offensive passage from "To Kill a Mockingbird," her black friends "didn't talk to me for two weeks."
A white girl from St. Paul's recalled a black classmate in a city public school telling her as a fourth-grader, "I hate you because you're white. God hates all white people."
That, she concluded, must have come from the child's parents.
The eighth-graders despaired of wiping out adults' prejudices.
A white girl recalled wanting to hold her birthday party at a swim club. Several black friends were on the guest list.
Her mother wouldn't let her have the party at the club -- and finally admitted it was because the club doesn't admit blacks.
"You can't change an adult," a Friends student complained. "They tend to ask, 'Is he or she Jewish, is he or she black?' about almost every person. It's really offensive, but there's nothing you can do."
A Boys' Latin student agreed that "you can't say much to change your parents' views. They look at you as a kid. The only way we can change the world is to get all the younger kids and younger adults to change."