The Sea of Sameness

Nov. 21, 2007
Sarah Hulett
A lot of students grow up going to schools where the other kids look just like they do. That means they might not be as prepared as adults to interact with people who are different from them

ANN ARBOR, MICH. (Michigan Radio) - Lake Orion High School is in a gorgeous, sprawling building in north Oakland County. It has pools, a huge gymnasium with a running track above it, and sound and video suites that would put some TV and radio stations to shame.

But there is something that's lacking.

"For the most part, I feel like our school is just this sea of students never-ending that all look exactly the same," says Lake Orion junior Serena Rabie.

"I'm probably the only Palestinian who's ever walked through the doors of Lake Orion High School, besides my little sister," Rabie says.

Lake Orion schools are about 90 percent white. But you wouldn't know it by looking at the students in the after-school club the Rabie helps lead.

About a dozen students get ready to get to know each other better during an ice-breaker exercise at a Cultural Outreach club meeting.

In this room, there's a healthy mix of nationalities represented. Foreign exchange students line up next to kids who grew up nearby, and students face one another in pairs.

Rabie explains that each pair will discuss their answers to oddball questions:

"Our first question: Would you rather spend ten minutes on the moon, or three months in Europe?"

The questions open up all kinds of discussions between the students. One of the Chinese exchange students tells her partner she likes living with her host family because she gets to have two sisters - something she wouldn't get to experience in China.

"That's the law? You can't have any siblings?" asks one student.

"Yeah, because there's like 1.3 billion people in China, so it would be very very crowded around the country," the exchange student explains. "So now I have two new siblings. They're really naughty, but they're really really cute."

The idea behind Cultural Outreach club is to expose Lake Orion High School students to the little bit of diversity that does exist in the school.

Ben Gerdeman is the group's advisor. He says the sameness of the student body here is short-changing kids.

"I mean, they're not getting a real-life picture," says Gerdeman. "A lot of these kids in Lake Orion are walking around with blinders on."

Gerdeman says the club is a good way to get some kids to take those blinders off for a while, and get to know students who come from different backgrounds.

Kyle Goodall is a senior at Lake Orion High. He says he hopes to one day be the Chinese ambassador, and in this Cultural Outreach meeting he's working on his diplomatic skills with a Chinese exchange student.

"Do you like the communist government?" Goodall asks her. "I don't understand why you guys can't overthrow [the government]."

Goodall says the club is great. But he says he thinks schools should do more to make cultural studies a part of the curriculum.

"We have World Studies class, but we just talk about wars and why people hate each other," Goodall says. "Why don't you talk about their actual culture? What they do, why they are different - and really open people's eyes as to what other people do."

Goodall has also been part of a project whose whole aim is to open young people's eyes about diversity and difference.

It works much like the Cultural Outreach club. But instead of running in a single school, Generation of Promise brings together students from different school districts.

Once a month, kids from 18 schools across southeast Michigan get together for a new cultural experience.

The idea is to build relationships among youth from different backgrounds.

On a recent morning, about 50 kids are getting ready to head out for a walking tour of Detroit.

For some of them, this is a rare field trip.

Lauren Kerr is from Lake Orion. She says she hasn't been to Detroit since she went to a Tiger game when she was six - even though Lake Orion is only a half-hour drive from the city.

Kerr says she's excited to see the city. But she says some of her classmates had different ideas.

"I was like, oh I'm going to Detroit, and they're like, why are you doing that?" says Kerr. "They just think there's a lot of people getting jumped in the streets, a lot of people getting robbed."

The students take off in groups, heading to the riverfront, the theater district, and landmarks like the Guardian Building and the Book-Cadillac Hotel.

Along the way, they get a little history, and some hometown insights.

"What do you do in Detroit, James?" Generation of Promise program director Christine Geoghegan asks student James Walton.

"I play basketball, there's a lot of basketball courts around," says Walton. "And downtown there's a lot of gatherings."

"There's a lot of festivals," says fellow Detroiter Jamar Ragland. "I mean you can just look around. They've really fixed it up from what it used to be."

Geoghegan says these high school juniors are at the point where they're ready to deal with the divisions they've grown up with: city versus suburb, black versus white, rich versus poor.

"For the first time in their lives, they get to decide how they feel about their community, how they want to contribute," says Geoghegan. "And I think that's part of what creates this environment where they want to be honest and they want to talk about it. Because they recognize the damage it's done, and they don't want to deal with it anymore."

After a day of exploring the city, the students talk about what they saw: cleaner streets than they thought. More restaurants than they thought. More people than they thought.

"It felt more alive than - I mean you think of Detroit, and you think about a desolate ghost town. But it's not," says one student.

After the holidays, each of these students will have the opportunity to be an exchange student at another school. So, suburban kids will have the chance to spend a day at an inner-city school, and vice versa.

They're temporary experiences. And it's only a handful of students who participate. But the hope is that these kids will be the leaders in their schools who encourage their fellow classmates to reach across boundaries they might not otherwise cross.