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The view from here: Students talk about how race has shaped their education

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 28, 2009 - Each month as a part of our Race, Frankly series, we've tried to tell the stories of regular people and their experiences. "The View From Here" continues this month, with a slightly different set of voices -- students. From an 11-year-old black boy being raised by white parents, to a young Iraqi woman, race continues playing a vital role in education, sometimes hindering, sometimes enriching, and sometimes simply making people very aware of who they are.


Way back in kindergarten, Phoebe Thoroughman remembers, she wanted to play with a group of girls.

"I had a friend named Teresa, and she was playing with some other brown girls, they were all brown-skinned," Phoebe says. "And I asked her if I could play, too, and she said I couldn't play because I was white-skinned."

Phoebe felt sad. "It was kind of a weird feeling," she says.

She's 9 now and in the third grade at Jackson Park Elementary School in University City. The majority of students are black, says Thoroughman's mom, Elizabeth Pickard, and Phoebe has taken part in African-American history programs, which were really fun.

Now, her best friend, Miranda, is Cuban-American. She has black friends and white friends, too.

Phoebe knows adults talk about race a lot. But to her, people are kind of missing the point.

"It really seems rather silly that people are judging others by their skin color," she says, "because that's just how they look. It doesn't really matter. It's just really weird."

If they're nice, then she'll be their friend. If they're mean, then she won't.

And that, to her, is what matters.


In kindergarten, he learned about Martin Luther King. After that, Patrick Schmuke asked his mom if she and his dad would still love him if there had been no Martin Luther King.

Patrick's black. His mom and his dad, Maryanne Dersch and Jon Schmuke, are white. The couple adopted him, as well as AJ, 5, and Taylor, 3, who are also black.

Now, Patrick is 11 and in the fifth grade at Dewey International School. And he's the one who has to do the explaining to people.

Last spring, Dersch was passing out juice boxes after a football game.

"This kid says, 'Is that your mom?','" she remembers. "And you said, 'It's not my first mom. It's like my step-mom. I'm adopted'."

It kind of hurt her feelings, Dersch says, that her son felt like he had to explain things.

"You don't have to explain," she tells him.

"I meant to say that you weren't my birth mom," Patrick tells her.

But usually, people do expect an explanation.

Patrick has been in the fifth grade for about a month now, and the wave of kids seeing his parents and wanting to know what's up has died down. Still, it bothers him.

Last year, in the fourth grade, Patrick and his classmates were asked to write essays about what they would have done if they had been Martin Luther King.

He can't remember exactly what he wrote, and his mom hasn't seen it, but Patrick did remember a little of that essay.

"I would do exactly what he did," he says. "But I would also make black and white and mixed together so they would, like, be an entire family of colors."


Last week, Kayla Foster walked through school in a shirt, shorts and boots, and she got in trouble for it. She usually does. This time, one of the faculty assistants at University City High School stopped her.

"She said, 'Those shorts are way too short for school.'"

Kayla, 16, was breaking the dress code. "And I was like, 'OK,' because I'm not gonna be disrespectful'," Foster says.

But she will wear the shorts again, and she will break the dress code again because Foster says she believes it's not fairly enforced.

Black kids get in trouble, white kids often don't, she says. "If you're white, I definitely don't think it applies to you," Kayla adds.

And she says she sees both black and white faculty following the double standard. Foster isn't sure why, and she doesn't think the staff really knows why either.

"They talk about equality and things like that," she says, but they're not showing it.

Kayla, who plays clarinet in the band and volunteers with the Red Cross, doesn't feel deeply damaged by the double standard.

"I definitely don't feel like I'm being held back in any way," she says.

But, without knowing it, her school is teaching her not to be naive about the world, she says, and to work hard in spite of any double standards she finds.

"It sort of inspires me to work harder to succeed," she says.

And it definitely inspires her to wear those shorts.


Nathan Wineinger's head was wrapped inside the arm of another man, who squeezed, took his knuckles and rubbed them hard over Wineinger's brown curls.

He was getting a noogie. In the middle of class. At Saint Louis University.

He was humiliated, frustrated, angry, and he had just learned the hard way that he wasn't allowed to talk about race.

The noogie happened a few years ago, he's 25 now. Wineinger, who is white and grew up in Overland, sat in a large marketing class that day while Anheuser-Busch was being discussed.

He brought up the prevalence of malt liquor billboards in neighborhoods that were mostly black. And, he said, there was a higher incidence of alcoholism among low-income minorities than compared with the population at large.

"And as I said that, everyone just erupted," he says. People called him "grand wizard." They started jeering.

At that moment, another student, who was black, ran across the room, jumped down to Wineinger's seat and gave him the noogie.

The next day in another class, someone said "I heard you said black people are lazy and don't want to work."

"It was at that point that I learned that in certain ways, we're not allowed to discuss race," he says.

It's been a few years since the noogie, but Wineinger still feels the same, like people are hyper-sensitive, like they make everything personal when it comes to race. And that makes it awfully convenient for white kids, he thinks, who then don't have to talk about it.

"So everyone gets to protect their own turf and no progress is made," he says.

That day in class, Wineinger was trying to point out questionable corporate behavior, how companies target populations in ways that could be unethical. But that discussion didn't happen, he says.

"I was actually never able to make my point."


Frial Bayati was 14 when she stepped into the unknown. She was with her dad and a translator as they walked into Roosevelt High School to register her for her first day as a student in America.

Bayati knew little English, just the basics she'd learned in 5th and 6th grade in her hometown, Mosul, Iraq, and a little more in the airport on the way here.

But it wasn't enough. Nothing really could have gotten her ready. Bayati was the minority here, as a Muslim and as an Iraqi.

She did well enough in her ESL classes, where she wasn't the only one struggling with language and customs, but in the cafeteria, waiting for the bus, she was terrified by the differences in culture and her inability to really speak to people.

"We're not used to speaking to guys and stuff like that," she says. "And when you're in high school and you don't have a boyfriend, it's a big deal."

She'd never worn pants until coming to the U.S. And the way the other students treated the teachers, so disrespectful, was the opposite of what she'd been taught -- to respect teachers like you do parents.

She felt alone, mostly, and lost.

The next year, Bayati's family moved to Affton, and she went to school there. It was smaller, quieter, but she still struggled. At 16, she dropped out.

Now, Bayati's 28, and she regrets that. In the time between there and here, she's found that the real difference between education in the U.S. and Iraq comes not from finding your place, but making it.

In Iraq, there were no choices, she says. You studied what you were told to.

"But here, it's like you have the opportunity to choose what you want to study."

In 2006, Bayati got her G.E.D. Today she's working on her associate's degree, taking classes at St. Louis Community College at Meramec and Forest Park. She's on track to graduate in December. After that, she plans to get her bachelor's in political science. She'd like to become a lawyer or maybe work in the diplomatic field.

What comes next is still unknown, but now she knows it's up to her to figure it out.