During the years I grew up in Mifflin County I never met an African American.
I never had an African American neighbor, classmate or teacher in 13 years of education there. I made my first African American friend the day after I left Lewistown for college.
I’m grateful my own children had a much broader experience where we raised them.
It was routine for our children to bring home African American friends from their school and the neighborhood. It was routine for our family to celebrate Jewish holidays with neighbors. To have Muslim friends over to our house for dinner.To welcome gay and lesbian and transgender kids into our house several days a week.
Sharing tea with a family in a Bedouin tent in the Sahara Desert or visiting one of the world’s largest mosques in a Muslim country has been part of our lives. Our family is much better because of the diverse lives that intersect with ours every day.
There are poignant lyrics in a song from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play South Pacific that talk about how we carefully teach our children to hate, they are not born that way. The play is more than 70 years old and yet those words remain relevant.
Recently the Mifflin County School Board taught area students about hate by banning another Pulitzer Prize-winning piece of writing.
I don’t think I am going far out on a limb to guess that most of the all-white board members who banned the teaching of the Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles and book, The 1619 Project, have never read what they banned.
Banning a book you have not read is actually a pretty good lesson in prejudice.
And the ban on the teaching of Critical Race Theory, which has never actually been taught in the Mifflin County School District, is a dog whistle. For an all-white board to say they worry that teaching actual American history will create divisiveness in the community is a terrible lesson for young people.
When I grew up in Mifflin County KKK meetings were happening there. Klan members living in a county with almost no African American residents rallied to condemn how their lives were being threatened by Blacks and Jews.
It might be nice to teach Mifflin County children about Klan rallies some of their grandparents used to attend. If it upsets them then good. It should.
My friends and I attended schools with native American names like Chief Logan and Kishacoquillas. Nobody explained to us the schools were located on land stolen from natives. I was never taught Chief Logan fed and clothed hungry white settlers he encountered. Or that later his entire family — women and children — were murdered by a group of white men. To me Chief Logan was just a school mascot, like a Saturday morning cartoon character.
Teachers taught us the important role Hawaii played in World War II but did not tell us how American businessmen imprisoned its queen a century ago and threatened to murder her and her closest friends if she did not step down from the throne. For good measure they demanded she sign a document saying she was not being forced to give up her country. And then for even more good measure the Americans who stole the islands made it illegal for most native Hawaiians to vote in their own elections. White American men would run the islands. They knew best.
Real American history is pretty interesting. Especially the parts people try to hide.
My Mifflin County high school counselor repeatedly encouraged me not to go to college. He said I would not succeed.
I ignored his advice. I graduated from college. And then I went to graduate school. And I became a vice president at one of the largest universities in the nation. During my career I went to meetings at the White House and met and talked with three US presidents and two vice presidents. I’ve traveled the world. I spent decades doing the kinds of things my high school guidance counselor told me were out of my reach.
My advice for today’s children in the Mifflin County School District is be careful when adults tell you not to read certain books, learn particular subjects or that you can’t dream big.
Less than 12 percent of the residents of Mifflin County 25 years of age and older have a college degree. The national number is more than three times higher at 38 percent. School board members should spend time trying to fix that, not focus on imaginary problems like banning college level teaching theories that are actually not being taught.
Many Mifflin County students are not prepared to go out and understand or succeed in the larger nation or the world. They live in a county with high poverty, low education levels and poor health.
More than 12 percent of residents have no health insurance. More than 15 percent live in poverty. The median income of a Mifflin County resident is far below the national number.
In places where education levels are low typically quality of life is also low.
Mifflin County High School is ranked 452 among 676 Pennsylvania high schools, according to data compiled by US News & World Report. A county where about one percent of the population is African American is sending its children out into a country where 13 percent of the population is African American.
Embrace diversity, don’t run from it. Study history, don’t hide it.
And kids, don’t let the adults in a poor community tell you they know what’s best for you. That’s not always true. Out of 67 counties in Pennsylvania Mifflin County is listed as the second least educated.
Banning books is not going to dig you all out of that deep hole.