Diversity matters in the classroom

Editor’s Note: In my November 21 column, “Let’s Talk Running In The Classroom And More,” I asked readers to send me their own personal stories. I’m happy to share this one with our readers, especially because it shows the limitless power of a mother’s love.

By Tim Thomas

I’m 51 and grew up in New York City. I was an only child raised by a single mother and moved to Boulder in 1992 at the age of 22. My mother went blind shortly before moving here in 2001. I am a black man. This is the story of my formal educational journey so far.

From grades one to three, I attended a Catholic school in Brooklyn. Almost all of the other students were black. It was a good private school, but expensive. A change was necessary.

In the 1970s, the New York Daily News published the ranking of public elementary schools based on reading and math scores. My mom identified the number one school, found a friend who lived in that area, falsely used her address, and signed me up for PS 131 in Jamaica Estates, Queens.

In the fourth grade, I would travel an hour on the subway, alone, then take a bus for another kilometer to get to school. No one at school, including my friends, knew I lived in Brooklyn. In fifth grade, my mom moved us to an apartment in Queens and eventually to another in Jamaica Estates. I attended 131 until I was in sixth grade.

One thing that struck me about school was that most of the students were not black or from the working class like my mother. My best friend was Jewish and his father was a doctor.

Besides my best friend, the thing I cherished the most about 131 was the annual science fair. I have attended the science fair every year. My projects were models of a volcano, a large scale solar thermal power plant, and a 3 foot tall plexiglass robot. I got top marks three years in a row and my love of science was galvanized.

The next school I was zoned to was Ryan Junior High School in Fresh Meadows Queens, declared “the safest … in New York” by the New York Post.

Beside rigorous academics, Ryan had a computer lab (this was in 1982) where we learned to program in BASIC. Our gym instructor sponsored ski weekends in upstate New York. Most of the students came from affluent white families, but a group of black children came by bus from the black working-class neighborhoods of South Queens.

Ryan had a large cohort of students, myself included, who took the test for all three New York City science magnet high schools. I entered Bronx High School of Science.

Science, as the school was called, had a giant telescope on the roof, a Westinghouse Science Fair award wall, and a Holocaust museum in the library. The school down the block had metal detectors.

Science had an incredibly gifted, large and diverse student body. Everyone there had passed a rigorous test to enter. My classmates were white, black, Korean, Puerto Rican, Haitian, Indian and Indonesian – a rich mix of backgrounds that added texture to the learning. Harry Belafonte spoke in one of our classes and Isaac Asimov, who was considered one of America’s “big three” science fiction writers, spoke at my graduation.

Then I came to the University of Colorado at Boulder. Although I received an excellent education, most of my instructors and classmates were white, and it seemed to lack complex texture. Notable exceptions were in my Ethnic Studies classes, at the Student Academic Success Center (SASC) and what is now called the Office of Intercultural Engagement. These three departments served as the academic, financial, and social support I needed to graduate from CU Boulder.

A few years ago, I attended my 30th high school reunion. I saw people who had accomplished great things, those who started with money and those who didn’t. I have known former black students who went on to become doctors, lawyers, financiers, educators, and foreign service officers. When offered rich educational opportunities, this cohort thrived.

What are the life lessons here? Diversity matters. While the CU-Boulder campus is predominantly white, the three departments mentioned above served as special gathering places for whites and non-whites to come together to support and learn from each other. They made my time at CU more like my experiences in high school where you could envision all possibilities in life, no matter what race you were or where you came from.

Tim Thomas lives in Boulder

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