State students lauded at anti-bigotry summit Mrs. Clinton, 3,000 teens share tales of prejudice

May 29, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Joined by scores of Maryland students honored for fighting bigotry, speakers ranging from first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to pop singer Jewel shared their experiences with discrimination at a diversity summit yesterday,

The first lady led a panel discussion in a crowded gymnasium with about 3,000 Washington-area students, hearing all manner of disturbing stories on the volatile issues of racial, ethnic and gender hatred. There was no end to the stories -- from the anxiety one teen-ager felt as he came out of the closet at his high school homecoming to the frustration another experienced when he was called "not a real American" because of his Filipino background.

"The stuff these people were talking about, that's what it's really like out there," said Tyree Wright, 16, a sophomore at Patterson High School in Baltimore. "I see lots and lots of groups being divided. The only way around it is to reach out to the young people."

The event, sponsored by a Boston-based group that calls itself the Team Harmony Foundation, is geared toward those young people in an effort to make tolerance hip. To that end, organizers blasted U2 in the background, had Jewel sing about discrimination and invited sports stars such as Baltimore Orioles outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds to mill about onstage.

It was a lively crowd with marching band music and spirited high school students -- at one point, Jewel had to shush her own audience to be heard. In this pep rally atmosphere, three Maryland schools were praised for establishing tolerance programs: Central Middle School in Edgewater, Easton High School in Easton and St. Mary's Ryken High School in Leonardtown.

Meanwhile, almost everyone had a personal anecdote about discrimination. Even Clinton said she has felt like a victim. "When I first came to Washington with my husband and we were in this situation for the first time," she told the crowd, "I was constantly amazed that people would say what they expected of me, what they concluded about me, without even meeting me."

Clinton sat on stage with a few dozen high school students, including Jason Jordan, 17, from Patterson. Although Jordan sat quietly onstage, he held onto a piece of paper in his pocket detailing all the times he had been assaulted with racial slurs.

The child of a white mother and a black father, Jordan remembered being insulted repeatedly as a 7-year-old in Ohio. "My first instinct was to punch him in the mouth," Jordan said of one child who spewed racial epithets at him. "I told him how would he feel if someone talked about him like that, or someone called him 'honky.' You can't judge people like that."

Other students talked about the strains of being the children of immigrants. Gerald Diregla, a Hyattsville student, said his classmates told him he wasn't a "real" American because his family was Filipino and had come to this country in 1979.

"They yelled at me, 'Hey, get back on your boat,' " said Diregla. "I am an American. And I felt hurt by that. How do I prove I am an American?"

Another student, Ruben Bermudez, 17, said he spoke at the summit despite his parents' wishes. After he recently declared openly that he is gay, his parents urged him to take a low profile. That is precisely what he didn't do.

Last fall, he and a male friend donned matching silver shirts and Gucci boots and entered their homecoming at Paint Branch High School in Silver Spring holding hands.

"We got some strange looks," he said. Bermudez said he has been teased about that day, and so he held a seminar on homosexuality for students in his school. "We talked about everything," he said, although he added "we still have some troubles with harassment."

In a more formal way, other schools are trying to increase tolerance through classroom programs, including a project in Central Middle School in which students painted a mural depicting diverse cultures.

At Easton High School, students created the "Roundtable Equity Club," a student group that convenes workshops to discuss diversity topics.

St. Mary's Ryken High School focused on just one issue -- the Holocaust -- and conducted a monthlong program for juniors using history, English, math and art. Students wrote journal entries in the voice of Holocaust survivors they had profiled, developed escape maps from concentration camps and depicted their feelings about the event through drawings.

At the end of the St. Mary's program, students wrote down their own prejudices and the class burned the slips of paper in a fire during a prayer service for Holocaust victims.

"It made a lot of kids realize what prejudice is," said George Schaffer, 17, a student at the Southern Maryland school. "It made us realize how prejudice is everywhere."

Pub Date: 5/29/98

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