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Friday, April 9, 2010

Name three girls or women you consider beautiful.

As the 14-year-old students at Horace Mann consider this first question, it’s clear that Valerie Barth’s World Savvy lesson on immigration and identity might end in mass detentions.

Unlike the gender segregation of Tuesday’s seating arrangement,  boys and girls on Friday sit in mixed groups and the tables kick with adolescent humor. “Do you think I’m pretty,” one boy asks the girl at his side. “Oh, I know a buck,” another kid says. “Don’t look at mine,” a girl warns.

It takes all of Barth’s skills and the help of her co-teacher Chistiana Hart – plus threats – to keep the 31 eighth graders focused.

Do any of you know why we’re asking these questions, Barth, a teacher-librarian, asks. No one responds. “It’s okay if you don’t,” she says. “It will become clearer.”

Other than mothers, grandmothers and sisters – more teen teasing about that – the students agree that the most beautiful women are  Megan Fox, the actress, and Kim Kardashian, the model.

At least two students also name, RuPaul, the drag queen.

Do Fox and Kardashian share different physical attributes, Barth asks. Who is different? RuPaul, a student says. How?

“She’s black.” Everyone laughs.

And the color of her hair? Barth asks.

The student thinks. “It changes.” More laughter.

Barth presses. Why do most of them find Fox and Kardashian beautiful?

Exotic features, nice eyes, nice curves, long hair, big curves.

Barth puts up Tuesday’s lesson – the self-portrait by the artist Yolanda Lopez, who looks nothing like any of their ideals of beauty.

Take another look at the portrait, Barth asks. Would you describe her as pretty or beautiful? Why or why not?

The students write: Her smile is beautiful and the sun is shining behind her; well if she thinks she’s beautiful she shouldn’t care why.

One student writes about how the portrait could be of either a man or a woman, how it looks “androgynous.”

Barth is thrilled – a teaching moment. Her students are staring at a visual definition of androgynous and it’s unlikely that many will forget its meaning for a long time.

Barth asks the class to consider different cultural standards for beauty. She grew up in Singapore where everyone had dark hair, she tells her students, and until she moved here, blonds looked odd to her. She found them unattractive.

She has the class’s attention.

After she worked with young white children she tells them, she discovered  “they were lovely, I fell in love with these kids.”

On the back of the worksheet is a list of 15 physical attributes including blond hair, very dark skin, skinny, and plump. Students check off whether they find each attractive, unattractive or neutral.

Like most of the schools in the Mission, Horace Mann is largely Latino with a few African American, Asian and white students.

Later I find that 13 of 31 checked off “very dark” as unattractive.

We move on to a short film A Girl Like Me.

In it Kiri Davis, the filmmaker, replicates the experiments Kenneth Clark testified about in Brown vs. Board of Education in which black children in the 1950s preferred to play with white dolls. Clark told the Supreme Court Justices  the experiments showed “that the Negro child accepts as early as six, seven or eight the negative stereotypes about his own group” and that “like other human beings who are subjected to an obviously inferior status in the society in which they live, have been definitely harmed in the development of their personalities…”

In Davis’s film, young black women first talk about the negative views others – including their mothers – have of dark skin color.

Then the re-creation of the experiment with dolls begins.

Barth’s class is quiet as students watch the black children approach a table with two dolls – identical except for skin color. In nearly each instance, the child selects the white doll.

The interviewer asks which doll is nice and which is bad. The children point to the white doll as nice and the black doll as bad. Why? “It’s white” and “It’s black.”

After one young girl says she prefers the white doll and points to the black doll as bad, the filmmaker asks which one is you?

The child looks stunned. She moves to pick up the white doll and then stops. Confused, she grasps the white doll again, but let’s go. Slowly she pushes the black doll forward.

A few students laugh nervously, but the noise can’t fill the silence.

When the lights go on, Barth asks if anyone wants to talk about what they’ve seen.

No hands shoot up, but you can feel thoughts and emotions bombarding.

“That last part, that’s just” screwed up, says one young man finally. “Here she is going to tell me I’m bad?”

Barth explores this – how it wasn’t the child’s fault; how cultures can define the positive and negative in physical attributes. The lesson’s sinking in.

InClass is a new column to give readers a sense of what it’s like in Mission District classrooms. Let us know if you have any suggestions.