I recently finished The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Sherman Alexie’s young adult novel repeatedly hit my funny bone and my weepy bone, too. The protagonist, Arnold “Junior” Spirit, a Native American on the Spokane Reservation, barges through all the traps of pathos and romanticisation sometimes found in “multi-culti” kid literature. There are repentant racists and quiet heroes, little triumphs and gut-punching tragedies. But it’s a great book, and I can see why it won the 2007 National Book Award.
Alexie’s novel reminded me of a notion I have about diversity—that in general there are two types. First, there is the social version where we place a number of people of many races, ethnicities, ages and abilities into a room and call the group diverse. This is very valuable, of course, offering us the chance to interact with people beyond our personal sphere. If all goes well, we discover differences that do and don’t matter and recognize similarities that matter more.
Then there is a second type of diversity. I call it Diversity in One, and to me it is personified by Alexie’s hero. Diversity in One involves cultivating within ourselves a curiosity and knowledge about other people and cultures. We may nurture it by studying languages, traveling to or living in foreign communities or countries, or reading opinions that that may discomfit as well as comfort us.
The commitment to injecting diversity into our own lives might be as small as making nian gao—a sticky rice pudding cake—for Chinese New Year, or as big as hosting a foreign student. And, yes, books like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian are key tools in opening kids’ internal eyes to other ways of living and being. Poems like Langston Hughes’ My People (there is a beautiful new book of sepia photos fitted around it that won the Coretta Scott King Book Award in January) can do this as well. So can novels like Luna by Julie Anne Peters, which is about a transgender youth.
For teachers, this concept of diversity within oneself can be a magic carpet of exploration and discovery for their classroom. For students, it helps them get ready for communities and workplaces that continue to grow less and less homogenous and insular. Most of us fear and resist what we are not ready to face. As educators, we do young people no favors by downplaying how dynamic and diverse this wonderful world has always been.
Alexie quotes W.B. Yeats in an epigraph to his novel: “There is another world, but it is in this one.” In my experience, there are many, many worlds in this one, many fitted with doors as near as the next desk or the closest library shelf.
I’m curious though. How much emphasis is put on ideas like this in your classroom? How do you promote the exploration of diversity in your school?