Turning trick-or-treat into sensitivity training

MIKE ROYKO

October 20, 1993|By MIKE ROYKO

To her amazement, Marian Coleman is suddenly famous. And how she got that way is an example of how goofy the news business can sometimes be.

Ms. Coleman has spent 25 years as a teacher, principal and administrator in Iowa City, Iowa.

She is currently the head of the Equity-Affirmative Action Advisory Committee for the Iowa City Community School District.

And until a few days ago, she was about as well-known as most educators in Iowa City, Iowa.

Then her local paper did a story about a letter that had been sent by her committee to parents about the Halloween costumes their children would be wearing next week.

The letter said the committee hoped the parents would be "sensitive to all ethnic and racial group members and other special group members such as the elderly and the disabled when choosing costumes."

And it gave this list of costumes that could offend ethnic or other groups: "Gypsy, American Indian princess, African, witch, old man, differently abled person, East Indian, slave, hobo, devil, old woman."

It suggested more inoffensive costumes, such as friendly monsters, animals, pumpkins, carrots, flowers, and people from history or other eras, such as the Roaring '20s.

The local paper's story was spotted by the Associated Press, which sent it to its thousands of newspaper and broadcasting clients.

On Sunday morning, it was mentioned by Sam Donaldson and David Brinkley.

By Monday afternoon, Ms. Coleman had been called by various Iowa TV and radio stations, the "Today" show, the "Rush Limbaugh" show and other news shops in Washington, New York and even Canada.

It was a natural because it triggered a modern buzzword: political correctness.

"I don't know how things got this way," said Ms. Coleman. "This is the way it has been for seven years. We've sent this letter for seven years. But now this year, all of a sudden, we're 'politically correct.'

"It's not a policy. It's not a mandate. The committee is a community group and it just wanted to make a suggestion about costumes for the 35- to 45-minute period at the end of the day when Halloween is celebrated. This was a suggestion for during school, not what they do after school, although hopefully the sensitivity will overflow into the time after school.

"We're just saying: 'Be sensitive to everyone.'

"I'm really surprised at the publicity. But I knew I was in for it on Sunday when I was washing dishes and someone called and told me to turn on the TV, that Brinkley and Donaldson were talking about the letter. Donaldson was a nice ally. He said maybe Whoopi Goldberg could have used the advice."

But why can't a kid dress as a hobo? That has always been a popular get-up, with kids blackening one or two of their front teeth as a special effect.

"Because we're not talking about hobos anymore. Walk down the streets. We're talking about homeless people. These so-called hobos are homeless men and women. We have homeless children in this school.

"Or the elderly. We have elderly people who volunteer at our school. Do we want to make fun of them and insult them? They're our partners.

"As for gypsies, there's just the connotation attached to it. We have a very transient and diverse population."

There's something in what Ms. Coleman says. It's not a good idea for kids to be wearing blackface or pretending to be handicapped. And maybe not even as Indians, since they could grow up to be Braves fans, sitting in the stand making mooing sounds.

And why should we be sensitive to the feelings of witches?

Ms. Coleman said: "Many of the younger children are frightened by witches."

Maybe. But I thought that part of the fun of Halloween was to scare and be scared. That's why I use a thin rope and pulley to drop a skeleton on the trick or treaters when they show up on my front porch. Then I go out and scoop up the candy and coins they drop as they flee in terror.

I figure I'm helping them prepare for the future. If they are going to grow up in this society, they might as well learn to be scared early.

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