~ This article was originally posted on the NJ Heralds Website~
If you consider the possibility that kindergarten is an indication of where our country is headed, the news is good, a Fredon kindergarten teacher said Monday.
As Betty Picone taught her class of kindergarten students about Martin Luther King Jr. on his day of remembrance Monday, the educator learned a thing or two herself on the evolution of society.
"I gave them the information and their astonishment that there could have been that kind of problem blows me away," Picone said after concluding her lesson on King. "Children are coming into school without prejudice. In fact, they have difficulty understanding what the word means."
One boy in class raised his hand and asked, "Let me get this straight, Mrs. Picone, they were mean for no reason? Can you explain that to me?"
Picone replied, "No, I can't. They were mean for no good reason."
Another student piggybacked off the first's question: "Wait a minute, was it the blacks who were mean to the whites?"
"That just tickled me," Picone said. "Parents are doing it right. They're not giving their kids the prejudice that I grew up with and my father grew up with. They aren't coming into school with the attitude, ‘you're different than me,' they're coming into school with the attitude, ‘we're all the same.' "
Barbara Kostenko, a second-grade teacher at Alpine School in Sparta, said she has experienced the same reactions from her students over the last few years.
"They think it's utterly bizarre," Kostenko said. "But I don't know if it's wonderful to say that prejudice and racism is going away or (if) it's youth -- they're seven and eight years old."
Regardless, Kostenko said, "They find it astonishing that they had separate water fountains and separate bathrooms."
In previous years, the Alpine School teacher said she's had children who have grown upset when they realized they wouldn't have attended the same school as some of their classmates or been allowed to be friends with them because of their skin color.
Similarly, second-grade teachers Dara Wohl and Jess Wilds at Green Hills School said their students struggled with the idea of segregation.
From that discussion, Wohl said she and her colleague introduced "the idea that racism is still prevalent in our modern day world -- not the same as it was 60 years ago, but in different forms."
"The foreign idea of racism still present in our world fostered students' initiative to live a life of example and demonstrates how (King's) legacy continues to live on through each of us as the future," Wohl said.
Picone said her students' discussion on differences and inequality then blossomed into a discussion "about other ways people can be mean, but don't have to." Picone said the kindergartners brought up examples of children with glasses or curly hair or classmates with clothes that aren't as nice as others' and how they should be all be accepted and treated equally.
"If you use kindergarten as a barometer, I think we are headed in the right direction," Picone said.