Separate is Almost Never Equal

By Don Hall

Back in the olden days when I taught seventh and eighth grade music on the West Side of Chicago, I tended to buck the straight up curriculum handed down by the CPS and come up with lessons I thought served the kids rather than the system. Thus came the Critical Listening Essays where we listened to music (stuff I brought in, stuff they brought in, whatever) and the students had to write (see, interdisciplinary) one page essays either praising or criticizing what they heard, and the Make an Instrument I Haven't Seen Before (incorporating tactile shop skills and spacial thinking as well as chaos).

One of the Big Deal Lessons was the eighth grade Compose and Perform a Ten-minute Opera. Aside from being a huge nine-week project that utilized everything from basic musical skills to leadership abilities, tactile set and costume design techniques, what set this project apart was that it was wholly cooperative. Each class got one grade. If the class received a 'C' on their opera, every kid received a 'C' for the nine-weeks. I didn't grade them on how good their opera was but on how well they cooperated as a group.

I loved that nine weeks because I was privy to watching how a group of kids used to fighting each other for everything from attention to street credibility, to popularity to the right to walk home without getting shot were required to work together. Sometimes it was a huge success and the reward was to see society working at its best. Other times it was a massive failure and those failures were almost always due to a small number of kids who simply refused to cooperate with the rest.

I couldn't blame most of those students who weren't playing along. Gang affiliations, devastating family conditions, daily violence and part of a generational disdain for public education and the belief that being well read and book smart was a waste of time. These kids were only in my class because they were required to be in school by law.

I remember a pair of boys who not only refused to work with each other or anyone else but actively sabotaged the class project as often as they could. I could see that the rest of the group was trying hard to make it happen but these two boys weren't having it. If it wasn't on their terms, their way, it wasn't happening. I had to do something.

Excusing them from the project was not an option—exclusion almost never ends up creating inclusion and it was their education as well. I pulled them both out of the classroom one day to talk to both of them and they started fighting with each other. Really throwing punches and screaming. I pulled them apart and tried talking to them but it was like talking to two angry cats—all hisses and arched backs. As it turned out—a girl explained it to me when I had put the boys in separate Time Out rooms—these two boys had brothers and uncles who were in rival gangs. Trying to get them to work together was impossible.

I'm a fan of accomplishing the impossible.

While the rest of the class began to actually get underway, the room filled with brainstorms and laughter and questions of "Can we do this, Mr. Hall?" I went from the classroom to each boy and tell them about the room's progress. When one or the other would tell me they didn't care, I'd let them know that the other kids were working for their grade, too and that they didn't have to lift a finger. I'd explain that cooperation was a good thing and that the benefits of working together far outweighed the accomplishments of the segregated. And this was the routine for about three weeks.

Finally, one of the boys, after hearing that the class needed a cape for a costume piece, suggested that his dad had a cape they could use. Upon hearing that his enemy was going to help out, the other boy said that he could make wooden swords because his dad had a woodshop in their garage. I told them both they should go to the rest of the class, given that they were well underway with their opera, and ask if they would accept their help. And they did. The two boys kept their distance from one another but both ended up participating (the boy with the cape even played an onstage role in the project.)

The class received an A+.


I understand the argument that, as a society, there are so many grievances we have against one another that we should simply go to our separate corners and go with the "Separate but Equal" stance.

"Separate but Equal" was a legal doctrine in United States constitutional law according to which racial segregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted in 1868, which guaranteed equal protection under the law to all citizens. Under the doctrine, as long as the facilities provided to each race were equal, state and local governments could require that services, facilities, public accommodations, housing, medical care, education, employment, and transportation be segregated by race.

I see the frustration of people of color, LGBTQIA individuals and women as they seek to carve a more equal footing to the white male structure in this country, both in big overarching legislative ways and in smaller entrepreneurial ways and, while I don't feel left out or threatened by these intentional segregations, I can only offer a limited amount of support for that approach.  I simply don't believe that exclusion of anyone ever fosters inclusion and I believe (as demonstrated by my eighth grade class project) that we are all getting the same grade at the end of things.  The grade is not for our individual achievements but for our ability to work together.

I could be completely wrong and that the idea that all of us can work together is impossible but I'm a fan of accomplishing the impossible.  Yes, there will always be Trumps out there, fueling divides, promoting discord, heralding their separate entities over others.  These demagogues who feed upon the cult of their own personality will actively tear down those organizations and individuals who attempt to level things by including everyone - hell, it's good marketing, if nothing else.  Rabble rouse enough in service of segregation and you're bound to fill your houses with those who have traditionally felt misunderstood and marginalized.

I could be completely wrong but I don't think I am.  I think, in a country designed to be a democracy, we're all being graded for our ability to overcome the personal, petty differences presented by race, gender and sexual orientation and work together.

At this point, we're getting a failing grade.  We need to strive for at least a B minus, yes?