Brown Eyes vs Blue Eyes | Teen Ink

Brown Eyes vs Blue Eyes

January 18, 2018
By RachHall BRONZE, Napa, California
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RachHall BRONZE, Napa, California
3 articles 0 photos 0 comments

Favorite Quote:
I sit before flowers hoping they will train me in the art of opening up -Shane Koyzcan

Author's note:

Author's Note is at the bottom and includes all of this.

I learned about racism at a young age. I was taught by a third grade teacher named Jane Elliott. Jane Elliott was really passionate about equal rights for every race, religion, ethnicity, gender, etc.
When she found out about the death of Martin Luther King Jr., she thought that just teaching her children was not the best way to have an impact on them. She came to class one day with an idea. An idea to help shift the way people are thinking of and treating African Americans, and other races. She felt it important to start with her children.
As a third grader, you do not really understand the concept of racism, but this simulation she did really helped give us the strong idea to “treat others the way you would like to be treated.” Years later, when we finally, understood about racism, a few of my classmates and I came back and visited her in Riceville, Iowa. We asked her why she used this method. She told us, “Well, if your child is being bad you don’t want to punish them, but you feel you need to still teach them a lesson from right and wrong. Racism isn’t something you should learn that is good with the world, so by doing this simulation it helped you understand how people are treated everyday.” She was right, and that simulation still affects me today.
There are many people who still do not know about Jane Elliott, or if they do, they don’t fully understand it from a child’s perspective. Jane Elliott is a great inspiration to people of many ages. I, for one, was lucky enough to be taught by her when I was in her third grade class. I am lucky to pass this learning on to my children and tell them the story about Jane Elliott’s teaching. This is my story about how she simulated discrimination by showing the difference between brown eyes and blue eyes.
It was April 4, 1968, but to me, it was just another thursday in Mrs. Elliott's class. She had just finished her lesson when the bell rang for all of us to go home. My mother had waited for me outside of my classroom. She gave me a big hug, and I felt her warmth and heard her heart beating slowly and steadily, syncing with my own. She took my backpack and we walked to the car and drove to pick up my father from his work. Mother worked from home so she would always be able to pick me up from school. We would then drive over to get father. Once we picked up father from his job, we drove home and ate dinner right away. After dinner I watched a few cartoons. “It's time for bed.” Mother called to me as she changed the channel to the news. I got up and went to the bathroom to brush my teeth, walking straight across to my room when I was done. As I was about to hop into my comfy sheets, I heard my parents talking in the other room with a discomforting tone in their voices. I peeked through my door to watch them and see what they were talking about.
“Who on earth would do that to Dr. King? Thats horrible!” Father exclaimed taking another puff of his cigar. Mother couldn’t stop pacing around the room.
“What are we going to tell our daughter? From what she tells us, Mrs. Elliott has been teaching them about Martin Luther King, she’s going to be quite confused and sad, she looks up to Mrs. Elliott since she has been teaching them about Dr. King. I don’t want her to be upset with Mrs. Elliott because of this.” Father stopped her pacing and looked into her eyes deeply, “Well, she deserves to know now.”
When I heard Father get up from his chair, I heard his footsteps with each stomp on the ground towards my room, I quickly ran to my bed and pretended I was asleep. I heard a knock on my door, “Honey, are you awake?” I rubbed my eyes and slowly propped myself up in bed as Father walks into my room with Mother following him.
“Yeah, dad, I’m awake.” he sat on my bed right next to me and a sorrowful look covered his face, almost if some loved one had died.
“Well, dear, I am afraid that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was badly injured and has passed away.” They went on to say that I shouldn’t be scared, and that if I had any questions, I could ask them. But I didn’t have any questions, at least not for them. I did not have time to fully process what they had told me since I fell asleep once they had left my room.
Mother knocked before slowly opening my door to wake me up. “Good morning, Sunshine,” she said blissfully. I sat up, stretched out my arms to each side of my bed, jumped down and walked out to the bathroom. As my warm feet touched the cold floor, I bolted awake and went to brush my teeth and changed into my clothes for school. Once my clothes were on, I grabbed breakfast and quickly ate it as mother hurried me out to the car with my lunch and backpack, “Come on honey, we don’t want to be late!” I swallow the last bite of my toast and jump into the back seat of the car. As we approached school, Mother kissed my cheek and waved goodbye as I walked to Mrs. Elliott's third grade classroom door. I walked to my seat, sat down and waited for the class to start. Right as Mrs. Elliott was about to write our first lesson of the day on the board, one of my classmates Steven (Armstrong) dropped his things onto his desk and blurted out, “Hey Mrs. Elliott, Why did they shoot that King?” he seemed confused, just like I was last night. Mrs. Elliott turned around to face us.
“How would you think it would feel to be black?” everyone in this classroom sat in silence, unable to answer that question because of the color of our skin. “It would be hard for us to understand discrimination wouldn’t it? Would any of you like to experience what it feels like?”
We all nodded our heads and a couple of us shouted out, “Yeah.”
“Today we are going to experience discrimination. Not by what it is like to be discriminated against for the color of our skin, but for our eye color. Since I have blue eyes, how about we start with everyone with blue eyes are on top. Would everyone with brown eyes please raise your hand. This will help show who has brown eyes in the classroom.” Mrs. Elliott grabbed a few collars out of her bag, the bag that she had brought to school everyday, and handed them to each one of the students who had their hands raised. I had blue eyes, and watched the kids with brown eyes attach on their collars. I felt like I was surrounded by kids with brown collars on.
She pointed to a the kid in the back, “Ardon, does your father have brown eyes?” he nodded his head, “When he comes home from work, does he hit you when you’re bad?” The student shyly nodded his head with a big bashful look on his face. “You have brown eyes, so that must be why your father hits you. If you had blue eyes you wouldn’t be hit if you were bad, you would be scolded but not hit.”
He tried to argue back saying that he knew his friend, who had blue eyes was, was hit by his father. But the friend shook his head and the boy in the back slumped back trying to hide from everyone.
Mrs. Elliott cleared her throat before speaking again. “Blue-eyed kids will have 5 extra minutes of recess. ” As all the blue-eyed people cheered for joy, I looked back at all the other kids and only saw disappointment in their brown eyes. Mrs. Elliott spoke once more, but this time, for the brown-eyed people to listen, “Brown-eyed children, you are not allowed to use the water fountain, instead you will be using paper cups, and you are not allowed on the play structure, now are we clear everyone” All blue-eyed kids cheered with their “yays” while the brown-eyed kids groaned and nodded their heads up and down in agreement. “Lastly class, blue-eyes cannot play with brown-eyes and brown-eyes cannot play with blue-eyes.” Looking back and forth to my friends to see their eye color, I lowered my head into my arms and sighed.
Lunch had just ended and it wasn’t as bad as I thought, I sat with a few other blue-eyed kids and were able to get along while eating our lunches and then hanging out during recess. I looked over at my friends standing next to the wall with a ball in their hands rolling it back and forth, they didn’t seem to be depressed since they had each other, but it made me feel lonely. I eventually walked away from my new friends and read a book near a tree and waited for the bell to ring.
At the end of recess, John had been scolded by the teacher for something. I could not hear what she was scolding him for but everything about it felt scary.
Once we got back into the classroom we worked on some math problems. During the math problems we sat in the back on a table where we were timed working on our worksheets, all grouped with blue eyed people like me. Once all the pencils clacked to the table we heard the “beep” of the timer being stopped. Mrs. Elliott showed us her big smile and told us, happily, “Good job everyone! You all finished your work under 3 minutes!” we all cheered as we went back to our chairs and worked on our own work.
It was then the brown-eyed kids to work and be timed for their math work. I heard the beep followed by an disappointed sigh from Mrs. Elliott, “You all took 4 minutes to finish your work.”
I turned around to see some of the kids at a table in the back drop their heads into their arms and some just shake their head and sighed. I felt guilty that I was happy for myself, that we did better than them, but I soon let it go and kept reading my book from earlier. When they went back to their seats, Mrs. Elliott walked to the front of the room, she picked up a piece of chalk and scraped it across the board and wrote out our next lesson.
At the end of the day our teacher sat all of us down in a circle to reflect about what happened today. “Everyone who had blue-eyes, how did it feel to be better and felt to have been treated better?” she said as she scanned the circle and saw all of us with smiles saying, “good” and “yay”.
“It would feel good wouldn’t it? How about you with the brown eyes how did it feel?” Mrs. Elliott did the same movement with her head and saw sorrow through their faces with a groaned “eh”.
“I bet it would feel bad, you weren’t given the same advantage as the rest of the class. So John, what happened today during recess?” Everyone looked over at John as he turned red and put his head down in embarrassment. “I punched a kid.” he said under his breath.
“Why did you punch the kid?” He lifted his head and his expression went from embarrassed to frustration and anger. “Because he was making fun of me, calling me ‘Brown-eyes’ and it made me feel bad.”
Mrs. Elliott became sympathetic, “I bet it would make you feel bad if someone was making fun of you. But do you think you should’ve hit him?” he shook his head “no.” The teacher let everyone go back to their seats to let us grab our bags, “I will see you next week resuming this exercise. Bye everyone.” she waved everyone out and we all went home.
Saturday was a nice and quite day for my mother, I stayed home with her as my father put in a few more hours at work to earn some extra money. I mainly stayed in my room and colored in my new coloring book I got the week before. I also watched cartoons while my mother was cleaning the kitchen. When Father finally come home, we ate dinner and then it was time for me to go to bed. By then, the weekend was half over. For the whole weekend I thought about what we had experienced and what was going to happen on Monday which was just a day away. Sunday, we went to church as we usually did. After church, Mother decided to take me to a new park that had been rebuilt and finally opened backup. Eventually it got too cold to stay at the park so we walked home and enjoyed the fresh air as we took a step closer to home. As Sunday had passed and Monday came, I got nervous to reach to school just a few minutes away.
I walked into class and sat at my desk that was in the middle of the room and waited as other kids hurried to their desks or dragged their feet and groaned as they were not ready to be picked on again.
As Mrs. Elliott closed the door behind her, she walks to the front of the room and instead of writing down the first lesson of the day like she always did. She spoke beginning with a sign, “Children, I am sorry to say this but I made a mistake. Blue-eyed people aren’t the better ones, brown-eyed people are.” All the brown-eyed people cheered as they did not have to be tortured for another day, I looked around and saw despair in all of the blue-eyed kids’ faces. I am sure they felt like I did.
  We went through the day feeling like the brown-eyed kids did on Friday. During solo work time, one of the other blue-eyed kids went to get a drink of water from the cups. As he was about throw away the cup, the teacher caught him and she scolded him, “Why would you throw away that cup? You are being a waste, you wouldn’t have throw that cup away if you had brown eyes. You must use that cup for the rest of the day.”
So he took the cup back to his seat and slumped back into his chair. Math time came around, and just like Friday, we did the timings of our worksheet. “Everyone done?” said the teacher, once she heard “yes” from each one of us she stopped the timer and shook her head, “5 minutes. Tsk tsk tsk.”
We looked at each other and all gave a “What happened?” look. When she told us to go back to our seats, it was the brown-eyed kids turn, I heard a short, quick giggle come from one of them as they passed me.
During the whole time they were at the back table working and being timed, I held my head in my hands and tried not to cry. When I heard, “Great job you guys! You got it done in 2 minutes!”. After a few little unsynced claps I felt one small tear fall down my cheek. Luckily, I managed to keep the rest in until it was time for us to leave.
Reflection came and I felt relieved that the day was just about to be done. “Come on, everyone, join me in a circle,” she said. “Let’s see how today went compared to Friday.” We all sat down and she continued speaking, “Blue-eyed students how did it go?” We groaned. Next she said, “And what about you with brown-eyes?” They all showed her a great big smile and some replied to her with “good”.
“So what did you guys learn these past two days?” I raised my hand along with a few other kids and she called on me, “I learned, that you shouldn't put down people just because of their eye color or anything else, because it doesn’t feel good to be pushed around or called mean things about something I can't change about myself.”
She nodded at my statement, “You are right, with Blacks, they are mistreated everyday just because of the way their skin looks.” She paused and turned towards Steven, directly across from me in the circle, “Steven, at the beginning of the day on Friday, you asked, ‘Why did they shoot that King?’ and you were confused on why they did that, right?” He nodded his head without saying anything.
“After doing this experience, how do you feel about Martin Luther king dying?” she questioned him, “Well, I feel mad because that's not a good reason to shoot him. He did nothing wrong so they shouldn't have hurt him.” He stopped talking and Mrs. Elliott continued, “Was it right for us to make fun of the people with blue-eyes or brown-eyes?” Everyone shook their head “no”.
“How about when we did the math and the timer, you guys saw that you all did better on the day when your eye color with the ‘Higher rank’ than the other classmates. Do you know why?”
One girl raised her hand and answered, “Because we weren’t being told we were smart so we didn’t try as well as the other time?” She twiddles her fingers unsure if her answer was correct, but when Mrs. Elliott replied to her with a “very good!” her blue-eyes lit up and didn’t feel as shy as before.
“When we don’t feel smart or good enough to do something, we don’t do as great work as we do when we are told that we are smart. There was one last thing I did remember today that was different than Friday. Brown-eyed kids, you treated the blue-eyed kids better than they treated you, why?”
She picked on a student at random and the girl said, “Because they didn't deserve to go through the same thing we went through.”
The teacher responded back, “Why do you think that is?”
“Because how they treated us, it made me cry. I didn’t want to see anyone cry because of me. I also think that we should treat others the way we would like to be treated.” Mrs. Elliott smiled at her, “I agree with you. That is the Golden Rule. I hope this lesson helped you learn something, because when you are older, this will affect the way people see you. So choose wisely what you say to people.”
From the end of that day and so on, those two days stuck with me up until now. Yeah that sounds pretty surreal, but it is the truth. Whether you decide you believe it or not.
As years went on, Mrs. Elliott started making this a yearly activity with her students. Parents often requested to have Jane Elliott teach their children. Unfortunately, Jane’s co-workers were not always the fondest of her teaching the students about racism.
For about seventeen years, she taught third graders this simulation about discrimination. Things did not always go well. During those seventeen years, a new superintendent was hired and the Teachers Association threatened to sue him and the school, unless Jane stopped her simulation. For two years, two of Jane’s third grade classes were not taught her special way to be taught about discrimination. Eventually, it got sorted out and she was able to continue the simulation.
Jane Elliott’s approach to teaching discrimination became public. People wanted to document her story. She agreed to have her and her students filmed while they did the project simulation. Years later, some of her students and I came back to Riceville and watched the video that we were documented on a different class, but was still enjoyable to watch. Looking back at those times, brought back the realization of how impactful of just watching a full third grade class cry and push people around based on their eye color.I looked over to one of my other classmates watching the video and saw a tear fall down her face and a big smile. Once I saw her smile, an even bigger one grew on my face.
When the seventeen years passed, Jane retired teaching but did not retire her simulation. After retirement, she taught adults every week 2-3 times for another 23 years. Today, she is asked to speak at schools, conferences, etc. Nowadays, racism has been taught to a bigger variety of schools. At that time, Jane Elliott was the only teacher at Riceville Elementary to teach her students about racism and discrimination. Jane Elliott was an LGBT Activist, Feminist and Anti-Racist, she has become a huge historical figure to many people for the courage and help she has done for students and adults.
Author’s Note:
I was given the option to research about a hero who helped make a difference during the Civil Rights movement. Jane Elliott had become an inspiration of mine way before I was given this project. When I heard the Jane Elliott was one of the options I immediately stopped searching and picked her immediately. When I first found out about her simulation, I was quite moved and was hoping to try the simulation for myself. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to ever do the simulation, so writing this short story made me think it was a comprise. During my research, I got the opportunity to ask Jane Elliott a few questions about her simulation. I was so in shock and excited when I talked to her that it almost felt like a dream.
It wasn’t hard to figure out that I wanted to write a short story about this. I’ve liked writing for a while, and I always love expanding my writing skills and it gives me the perfect choice to expand my horizons, especially since it's my first story on a first person point of view story who is not the main character in the story. I hope to write something similar to this and have both, or just one, impact the community in some way.
Credited Sources:
Jane Elliott - Wikipedia
Smithsonian- Lesson of a Lifetime
A Class Divide Video- Youtube
Jane Elliott -FaceBook Page
Phone conversation with Jane Elliott

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