Lesson of a Lifetime- page 4 | History | Smithsonian
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Lesson of a Lifetime

Her bold experiment to teach Iowa third graders about racial prejudice divided townspeople and thrust her onto the national stage. Decades later, Jane Elliott's students say the ordeal changed them for good

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We stopped on Woodlawn Avenue, and a woman in her mid-40s approached us on the sidewalk. "That you, Ms. Elliott?"

Jane shielded her eyes from the morning sun. "Malinda? Malinda Whisenhunt?"

"Ms. Elliott, how are you?"

The two hugged, and Whisenhunt had tears streaming down her cheeks. Now 45, she had been in Elliott's third grade class in 1969. "Let me look at you," Elliott said. "You know, sweetheart, you haven't changed one bit. You've still got that same sweet smile. And you'll always have it."

"I've never forgotten the exercise," Whisenhunt volunteered. "It changed my life. Not a day goes by without me thinking about it, Ms. Elliott. When my grandchildren are old enough, I'd give anything if you'd try the exercise out on them. Would you? Could you?"

Tears formed in the corners of Elliott's eyes.

The corn grows so fast in northern Iowa—from seedling to seven-foot-high stalk in 12 weeks—that it crackles. In the early morning, dew and fog cover the acres of gently swaying stalks that surround Riceville the way water surrounds an island. The tallest structure in Riceville is the water tower. The nearest traffic light is 20 miles away. The Hangout Bar & Grill, the Riceville Pharmacy and ATouch of Dutch, a restaurant owned by Mennonites, line Main Street. In a grassy front yard down the block is a hand-lettered sign: "Glads for Sale, 3 for $1." Folks leave their cars unlocked, keys in the ignition. Locals say that drivers don't signal when they turn because everyone knows where everyone else is going.

Most Riceville residents seem to have an opinion of Elliott, whether or not they've met her. "It's the same thing over and over again," Cross says. "It's Riceville 30 years ago. Some people feel we can't move on when you have her out there hawking her 30-year-old experiment. It's the Jane Elliott machine."

Walt Gabelmann, 83, was Riceville's mayor for 18 years beginning in 1966. "She could get kids to do anything she wanted them to," he says of Elliott. "She got carried away by this possession she developed over human beings."

A former teacher, Ruth Setka, 79, said she was perhaps the only teacher who would still talk to Elliott. "I think third grade was too young for what she did. Junior high, maybe. Little children don't like uproar in the classroom. And what she did caused an uproar. Everyone's tired of her. I'm tired of hearing about her and her experiment and how everyone here is a racist. That's not true. Let's just move on."

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