The discussion leader polled a classroom of preteens, asking what drew them to the first middle school Multicultural Leadership Conference in Westminster yesterday.
Phyllis Black smiled at the standard answers that included a day off, a good lunch, or "the teacher picked me." She applauded Theresa Ward, a 13-year-old East Middle School pupil.
"I came because it is time for our generation to finally make a difference," Theresa said. "In middle school, you decide the person you are going to be and the people who will be your friends."
Nearly 300 pupils attended the daylong conference at Western Maryland College. They saw skits and videos depicting racism; participated in candid, often personal discussions; and cheered enthusiastically for a dance troupe performing traditional African stepping.
"We want you to feel good about our similarities and our differences," said Gary Honeman, co-chairman of the Carroll Citizens for Racial Equality, which sponsored the conference with the schools.
Virginia Harrison, co-chair of the citizens group, said she hoped the day would be one of "awareness that we should respect others' ethnicity and embrace it. That is what brings about change."
The conferences began three years ago with high school students. Now with a $239,000 Safe and Drug-Free Schools federal grant, administrators can extend the program to middle schools and next year possibly to elementary pupils.
"All the hate comes from ignorance," said Jenny Horner, 13. "Schools should try to educate us more about different cultures."
As the children broke into small groups, Honeman urged them to be "courageous with yourselves and with each other." The groups reviewed the opening skits, where characters used racial slurs and acted out scenes that dealt with bigotry.
"Those skits were very real, but I am not surprised at the language," said Heather Smith, 13. "Those things happen at school."
Many in the audience had gasped when the actors resorted to insensitive, hurtful words.
"Those words set us back," said Kelley Rainey, a Francis Scott Key High senior helping with the discussion. "Those themes are what we are here to deal with today."
Most discussions centered on racism in Carroll County, which has a minority population of less than 3 percent, and several recent incidents of what many call racial insensitivity. The previous Board of County Commissioners twice refused to join Call to Community, a regional effort at racial unity. The county board of education voted last month to open schools on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and then, faced with increasing community pressure, rescinded the decision.
Jenn Witte, 13, said the conference might not alter official opinions. "You can't change what other people think, but you can change the way you think," she said.
Teachers, administrators and high school students encouraged the children to speak freely. Several related incidents of their own. A few overheard a conversation where one boy teased another for failing to make a lacrosse team.
Dan Hurley, 13, said, "You shouldn't say something that might hurt somebody, even if you don't see that hurt."
Ana Ward, a 13-year-old of Hispanic descent, said, "It hurts when people make fun of me. I know how badly other people feel."
"Just because I'm different from you does not mean you should hate me," said Chad Millberry, 12, an African-American.
Twelve-year-old Natasha Morrison said she recently heard a classmate ridicule another pupil for speaking in his native language.
"I told her she hurt his feelings and to stop it," Natasha said.
Black applauded again and said, "All of you have to start doing that. Think about how each of you can make a difference."
Crystal McCartney, 14, called the discussions thought-provoking and said she was surprised at the candor.
"I thought kids would say what was cool, not what was on their minds," she said.
Chuck Rizzo, 13, said the conference should help people appreciate their differences. "If we were all the same, this would be a boring place," he said.
After lunch in the college dining hall, the children watched seven students from Bowling Brook Prep, a high school for at-risk teen-agers, perform intricate step routines, dances that trace their roots to Africa.
"Stepping came from Africa," said Nate Ferkovich, the dancers' coach. "People came together as one to celebrate unity and pride. That is why we are here today."
Pub Date: 3/18/99