Glenelg students tackle touchy subjects during Cultural Awareness Week HOWARD COUNTY EDUCATION

February 22, 1993|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

Brian Meshkin is sensitive to stereotypes.

He's dark-haired and dark-skinned, half Iranian and half American. During the Persian Gulf War two years ago, students vandalized his locker with racial slurs, believing he was Arabic.

"I was angry and sad," he said. "Why did this have to happen to me?"

The 16-year-old Glenelg High School student thought of dying his hair blond and changing his dark brown eyes to blue. "Of course, that would have looked ridiculous, but I was angry at my cultural background. I was being intolerant with my own background," he said.

Brian, like many other students, has been working for a change in school climate. Last summer, he signed up to become part of the newly formed peer mediation program, which last week sponsored sessions in social studies classes for students to discuss diversity.

The sessions -- about 80 in all -- were part of the school's Cultural Awareness Week. Other activities included a Friday assembly in which African-American history and Native American culture were highlighted.

Students who led the classroom sessions throughout the week were either peer mediators or those who trained with the school system's human relations department.

"It was peers teaching peers, students teaching students," Brian said. "No one would have thought a year ago that students would be teaching students. This is an unprecedented first in the county. It was a success."

In different classes, students played games of "stand up," where they would rise if they belonged to such groups as the only child, the oldest child, right-handers, southpaws, male or female.

"The idea is to give them a subtle idea that they belong to more than one group," said Dennis Cole, a social studies teacher who helped plan the activity.

"How many of you were born in Maryland?" asked Russell Payne, a senior, as almost all the U.S. History students rose to their feet.

"Stand up if you're 5-feet-5 or taller," he said. "Stand up if you're 5-feet-5 or shorter. How many of you participate in extracurricular activity?"

Students then broke into groups to discuss stereotypes about males, females, minorities and religions. They also were asked to discuss what was good about the different groups.

In a group that discussed religion, 17-year-old Josh Phelps said he didn't like it when people generalized about his Pentecostal faith.

"People think we are self-righteous because we believe in the strict interpretation of the Bible," he said. "We're not."

He and other members of the group, two Methodists, a Baptist and a Catholic, came up with a list of stereotypes they've heard about religious sects.

Groups presented their findings to the entire class.

"Our group came up with chauvinism [as a stereotype against males]," said 17-year-old Ryan Spitzer, who presided over an all-male group.

The group came up with such other stereotypes as "guys never ask for directions," Ryan said. "They're close-minded, never sensitive, overaggressive [and] unorganized. They're expected to be the providers, have a one-track mind, are conceited and self-centered."

But "we're proud of being a man," he said. "We're proud we can provide for our families. We're proud that when we have a problem, we can deal with it straight out."

The all-female group, meanwhile, came up with their own list of pet peeves. "We don't like pet names like 'chick' or 'babe,' " said Carey Madison, 17. "We don't like being called housewives. We don't like being called 'dizzy' if we're cheerleaders."

Her group also resented the view that women are weaker than men and that women don't play sports as well as men.

Yet, being a woman has its good points. "We're proud of being able to bring children into the world," she said. "Women are becoming dominant in sports. [We] can fight in the military, [and we] can vote. We're gaining rights. We have good relationships with other women. We're climbing up in the work world."

Two students -- both white -- discussed misconceptions among races.

Blacks are stereotyped as being "always poor, dumb and always drunk," said 17-year-old Jennifer Ferraro. They've "overcome downfalls," she said.

Whites are generalized as "being lazy, having no soul or hip-hop," she said, but they've contributed greatly to world inventions.

Jennifer lectured students for laughing as the various groups listed stereotypes. "When you laugh, you are encouraging stereotypes," she said.

Students said they learned a lot from the sessions.

"It opened my eyes to a lot of different things," said Carey. "It made me realize how people felt."

Damion Krauss, 17, said he hears many stereotypes passed on in the school hallways.

"People must learn to appreciate one another's differences," he said. "Everybody's different. That's what makes America America."

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