I am a 6' 7" African-American male and at the time I was 21 years old. A rare person in the area of elementary art education. During my time at Kutztown University I had grown to accept being the only Afro-American in my academic area of study. In most of my art classes I would be the only minority and being 6' 7" makes me stand out even more than normal. Regardless of my loneliness, I did the very best job I could and incorporated my heritage into my artwork. Throughout all of this, I was eagerly awaiting my senior year so I could student teach.
My senior year had finally arrived and I received my first assignment at Perry Elementary School, Hamburg, PA. An externally rural area in the middle of Pennsylvania Dutch Country (in other words, in the middle of nowhere with no minorities). When I realized the location I was not upset because my second assignment was inner city Allentown, PA, with plenty of minorities to make me feel comfortable. I figured that it would be fun and similar to being around my art classes on campus with no African-Americans.
My first visit to the school was a big shock. I knew the school would be all Caucasian, but I did not expect the response I got from the children. The very first thing I expected to be a problem was the students saying to me, WOW, it's Michael Jordan..., or Do you play basketball? I would respond to all of the questions by saying, "No, I am an art teacher!" and think, "Dear Lord, do I have to put up with this for the next seven weeks?" Also, during my visit with my cooperating teacher, Mrs. Wesner informed me that Perry Elementary School is one out of three schools where she teaches and the other two were even further away from this school. I thought that these kids out in the middle of nowhere are going to be terrified of a 6'7" Black Man. I took it as a learning experience and went home with very little anticipation.
My first day was fine except for the constant questions, asking if I was Michael Jordan and do I play basketball. The questions continued throughout the week and especially at the two other schools we went to. It took about four weeks and six snowdays for the questions to stop. Surprising to me was that the students never mentioned one thing about me being an African-American. Mrs. Wesner had told me that most of them have never been exposed to an African-American and this would be a positive way for it to happen. I agreed and realized that I am extremely comfortable with the situation and at times forgot that the students and I were different in skin color.
One day, Mrs. Wesner told me something that made me very happy. She said that she had went to the dentist the night before and the receptionist at the office is a mother of one of the students at Perry Elementary School. In their conversation the mother said that her son mentioned that you have a very tall student teacher who is a lot of fun. Mrs. Wesner asked if that was all her son said. The mother replied yes and asked why. She replied by telling her that he is an Afro-American. The mother was extremely surprised. When Mrs. Wesner told me the story I realized that the students really don't care what color I am, but simply how well I do what I do.
Another incident occurred a few days before my last day at that assignment. The fourth grade classes at Perry were making portraits. One young boy said to me that he was going to draw a portrait of me. I told him fine and continued on helping other students. Towards the end of the class I stopped back at his table. I looked at his drawing and told him to stop. He stopped coloring and put down his colored pencil.
I asked him, "what color is my hair?"
"Black," he replied.
Then I placed my hand on the table next to the drawing and said, "now, what color is my skin?"
The boy said "brown," and looked back and forth to my hand and his BLACK drawing of me. "I don't understand! I thought that you were called black."
I said "I am brown. If I were black I would be burned and if you were white as this paper you would be dead."
"Then why are we called black and white?" the boy said.
"I'm not quite sure, but it doesn't fit well, does it?" I replied.
"No, that is stupid!" he shouted back.
I pointed to a drawing that another student was coloring and asked him, "What color is his drawing?"
"Peach," he answered.
"Now, if you think about it, everyone is a different shade of brown. Nobody is black and no body is white. We are all just shades of brown."
The student immediately started erasing the black on his paper, very excited and looking as if he learned the secret to the universe. That day I felt that I taught the best art lesson I could ever teach a student and myself. When coloring in a person of any race, simply pick a SHADE OF BROWN.
Steven A. Bollar
Lawrenceville Elementary School