Lesson of a Lifetime- page 2 | 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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At lunchtime, Elliott hurried to the teachers' lounge. She described to her colleagues what she'd done, remarking how several of her slower kids with brown eyes had transformed themselves into confident leaders of the class. Withdrawn brown-eyed kids were suddenly outgoing, some beaming with the widest smiles she had ever seen on them. She asked the other teachers what they were doing to bring news of the King assassination into their classrooms. The answer, in a word, was nothing.

Back in the classroom, Elliott's experiment had taken on a life of its own. A smart blue-eyed girl who had never had problems with multiplication tables started making mistakes. She slumped. At recess, three brown-eyed girls ganged up on her. "You better apologize to us for getting in our way because we're better than you are," one of the brownies said. The blue-eyed girl apologized.

On Monday, Elliott reversed the exercise, and the brown-eyed kids were told how shifty, dumb and lazy theywere. Later, it would occur to Elliott that the blueys were much less nasty than the brown-eyed kids had been, perhaps because the blue-eyed kids had felt the sting of being ostracized and didn't want to inflict it on their former tormentors.

When the exercise ended, some of the kids hugged, some cried. Elliott reminded them that the reason for the lesson was the King assassination, and she asked them to write down what they had learned. Typical of their responses was that of Debbie Hughes, who reported that "the people in Mrs. Elliott's room who had brown eyes got to discriminate against the people who had blue eyes. I have brown eyes. I felt like hitting them if I wanted to. I got to have five minutes extra of recess." The next day when the tables were turned, "I felt like quitting school. . . . I felt mad. That's what it feels like when you're discriminated against."

Elliott shared the essays with her mother, who showed them to the editor of the weekly Riceville Recorder. He printed them under the headline "How Discrimination Feels." The Associated Press followed up, quoting Elliott as saying she was "dumbfounded" by the exercise's effectiveness. "I think these children walked in a colored child's moccasins for a day," she was quoted as saying.

That might have been the end of it, but a month later, Elliott says, Johnny Carson called her. "Would you like to come on the show?" he asked.

Elliott flew to the NBC studio in New York City. On the "Tonight Show" Carson broke the ice by spoofing Elliott's rural roots. "I understand this is the first time you've flown?" Carson asked, grinning.

"On an airplane, it is," Elliott said to appreciative laughter from the studio audience. She chatted about the experiment, and before she knew it was whisked off the stage.

Hundreds of viewers wrote letters saying Elliott's work appalled them. "How dare you try this cruel experiment out on white children," one said. "Black children grow up accustomed to such behavior, but white children, there's no way they could possibly understand it. It's cruel to white children and will cause them great psychological damage."

Elliott replied, "Why are we so worried about the fragile egos of white children who experience a couple of hours of made-up racism one day when blacks experience real racism every day of their lives?"

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