Missouri mom helps son's classmates embrace diversity

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- Marcela Martinez McNett knew the adjustment to a new city would be hard, but what she didn't expect was the difficulty her son would experience at school.

When she learned that he was being bullied and harassed by other students because of his skin color, she approached the principal with an idea to expand students' understandings of cultural differences.

"Kids can be so mean, especially when they can't tell what you are or if they can't pronounce your name," said McNett, 34, who moved to St. Joseph two years ago after getting married.

After living in Wichita, Kan., where there is a larger Hispanic community, McNett found her son, Joaquin, 9, getting bad grades and struggling to fit in at Hyde Elementary School. At the end of third grade, she finally learned that the bullying and derogatory remarks were what were upsetting him.

Marcela McNett said often other children would ask him what color he is, too young to ask politely about his race or ethnicity.

"The best advice I can give him is to tell them that his blood is the same color as everyone else's on the inside," she said. "Even adults say things sometimes. The racial barrier in 2010 is tense around here, and it's hard to believe that people can really still think like that."

She said it broke her heart, and while he never got into any fights with other students, she wanted to find a way to distance him from the upsetting comments.

Marcela McNett is multicultural herself. Part Mexican-American, black, American Indian, Indian and Irish, she remembers what it was like when she was in elementary school and was harassed because no one knew what ethnicity she was, either.

"I am not a mix, and I am not a color, because I'm not from a crayon box," she said. "I am a blending of cultures, and I am American."

Marcela McNett approached Jeaneen Boyer, the principal at Hyde, with the idea to have some sort of assembly to help raise cultural awareness for the students. In conjunction with Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, Boyer and Marcela McNett planned assemblies for Monday and Tuesday.

"My main goal is to educate these kids so that they aren't all mean to each other and can welcome and embrace different cultures and races," she said. "Often times when you meet people who are inconsiderate and insensitive, you shut them out. Instead, I wanted to invite them in, especially the younger crowd, so they can learn more about part of our heritage."

Marcela McNett said that so far this school year, Joaquin's grades have improved greatly, he always comes home from school cheerful and he has made friends on the football team.

"People don't seem to ask me those questions anymore," Joaquin said. "And if someone makes fun just to make me mad, I'll ignore it."

Even with the improvements, she is grateful to have the assembly as well.

"I know I made a difference already," she said. "The kids were really excited and you can tell by their smiles and cheers that they enjoyed the assembly."

As she joined her son Monday in the cafeteria for lunch, she could hear many students of different races and ethnicities sitting together talking with excitement about Argentina and the presentation they saw earlier that day. Some were asking her to sit with them, and began asking her more questions relating to her heritage and background.

"I feel like a failure if I'm not helping somebody," she said. "I hope I've helped not only my son, but every child that was there. I was impressed by the response of the kids, and I really feel like they learned more about cultural differences and will be more respectful and open to learning even more."

The two-day assembly began Monday and featured the Dancing Gauchos, an Argentinean traveling performance group, which entertained the students at Hyde Elementary School with drums and fire dancing.

Marcela McNett said her next task will be to create a citywide cultural assembly that would, hopefully, include all education and presentations on many different cultures, races and ethnicities.

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