Appreciate Our 'Coat of Many Colors'
by John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D., Contributing Columnist;
Professor, George Mason University
which of her many songs was her favorite, Dolly Parton answered, "Coat of Many
Parton, who grew up in a poor rural environment, recalled how her mother
had made a special coat for her from scraps of various colored cloths. She said, "I
wore the coat to school in my early years, and it provided me warmth. It also reminded me
of my mother's love that was sewn into every stitch."
I believe the United States of America is much like Dolly's
coat: it, too, provides comfort and warmth from a basic human fabric made of many colors.
Most of us would agree that, when choosing an outfit, we seek to have it include different
colors. If the suit is a solid color, we add accessories to complement the basic garment.
It's the variety that adds beauty to the final composition.
Yet, variety does not come
without its associated problems. People sometimes have preconceived notions of which
colors should be mixed and matched. There are also colors for different seasons. I'm a
person who in his younger years liked to mix and match bright colors in my selection of
apparel. The clothing I wore always elicited comments - some liked the variety and
difference, others didn't. I can remember my wife saying to me, "You can't wear those
white pants or jacket until May first." I responded, "Who determines that date
anyway? It just doesn't make sense to limit white or any other color to a given
This introduction is not a prelude to a fashion column, but an analogy of how color and
other differences can provide both opportunities and problems. We have plenty of diversity
in this country. The diverse fabric of our population is sewn together with the thread of
laws established under the framework of the United States Constitution. Yet, even with
this strong thread, we as a society haven't always been able to hold the pieces together
to make Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors." I've concluded that we need more
than strong thread. Love for our fellow man must also accompany every stitch and that
can't be legislated.
My father immigrated to this country after a tour of duty in the Italian army during
World War I. Being first-generation, I never envisioned myself as an Italian-American, but
more as an American with Italian heritage. One of the problems I see in our society is
that some members of ethnic groups identify themselves by their ethnic heritage first, and
hyphenate their Americanism. We need to recognize the value of each piece of cloth for its
individual contribution to the coat, and not how the coat contributes to each piece!
I moved to Manassas in 1966 to teach in the public schools. I can remember the school
custodian saying to me, "We're going to have a difficult time this year at this
school." When I asked why, he responded by telling me that the school would be
integrated that year. How naive I must have been to have taken a teaching position in the
south and not even inquired about integration. The Pennsylvania schools that I had
attended and taught in were all integrated; I never gave it a second thought. In fact, Dan
Barber, one of the few black students, had become president of the class.
Because of integration, I gained a new friend that first year of teaching in Virginia,
a fellow teacher by the name of Sue Ellis. She taught physics and I taught electronics in
the neighboring lab. We shared teaching ideas, team-taught and on rare occasions
intervened in some school disputes. Sue Ellis proved the custodian wrong, for she helped
make it a good year for many students and other teachers like myself.
The public schools are the one place in our society where the diverse forces of ethnic
backgrounds are brought together. Just recently I watched a New York news channel that
highlighted a controversy that arose when a 25-year veteran teacher chose to ask kids of
different skin tones to stand as part of a lesson recognizing the diverse nature of the
school. The lesson was presented in conjunction with planned activities to honor the Rev.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A few students objected to standing. Two parents contacted the
news media, which found a need to spend 10 minutes of programming time highlighting the
teacher's action. The teacher was put on the hot spot for trying to do her job.
One of the protesting students was interviewed along with her mother. The young girl's
father was Egyptian and one of the statements she made during the interview was, "I
don't want to be brown, I want to be white like my mother." If anyone needed a lesson
in the value of diversity, this student surely did. The young lady and her mother needed
to talk with my friend Sue Ellis.
Problems that center on diversity are always in the news and should be discussed as
part of school lessons. How could a social studies or history teacher not discuss the flag
debate in South Carolina? Good teachers will try to connect the past with the present to
make issues more relevant for their students. Whether the Rebel flag should be flown over
a state capitol building is an excellent discussion topic. If I were teaching a class
where this topic came up, I would say, "It's an improper place for displaying that
flag." I would also discuss proper places to display the Rebel flag, such as the Old
Virginia General Assembly Room that is now devoted to recognizing Virginia's history. I'm
sure I would probably ruffle a few feathers and may be told to stick to teaching the SOLs.
My response would be, "Teaching facts is easy; working with the individuals learning
those facts is difficult."
As we enter a new century, it would be nice to not have to deal with the negative
diversity issues of the past. As my history teachers would have told me, you should learn
about the mistakes of the past or you're doomed to repeat them in the future. Our present
direction - teaching to emphasize state testing - may not leave much time for this type of
life-enriching learning to take place. As we run and hide by designing tests that measure
only a student's academic progress, we fool ourselves by thinking we have done our job in
education. I think teaching children how to deal with the bigots of the world is as
important as learning obscure facts, and that schools are where these types of discussions
need to take place. Identifying the content of the First Amendment is of little value to
the student if the student hasn't learned his or her responsibility to use free speech in
a proper manner. Let's make sure, as we move forward with our educational goals, that time
is left to incorporate some reflective thinking on diversity issues which goes far beyond
just being able to identify Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders.