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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The people of riceville did not exactly welcome Elliott home from New York with a hayride. Looking back, I think part of the problem was that, like the residents of other small midwestern towns I've covered, many in Riceville felt that calling attention to oneself was poor manners, and that Elliott had shone a bright light not just on herself but on Riceville; people all over the United States would think Riceville was full of bigots. Some residents were furious.

When Elliott walked into the teachers' lounge the next Monday, several teachers got up and walked out. When she went downtown to do errands, she heard whispers. She and her husband, Darald Elliott, then a grocer, have four children, and they, too, felt a backlash. Their 12-year-old daughter, Mary, came home from school one day in tears, sobbing that her sixth-grade classmates had surrounded her in the school hallway and taunted her by saying her mother would soon be sleeping with black men. Brian, the Elliotts' oldest son, got beaten up at school, and Jane called the ringleader's

mother. "Your son got what he deserved," the woman said. When Sarah, the Elliotts' oldest daughter, went to the girls' bathroom in junior high, she came out of a stall to see a message scrawled in red lipstick on the mirror: "Nigger lover."

Elliott is nothing if not stubborn. She would conduct the exercise for the nine more years she taught the third grade, and the next eight years she taught seventh and eighth graders before giving up teaching in Riceville, in 1985, largely to conduct the eye-color exercise for groups outside the school. In 1970, she demonstrated it for educators at a White House Conference on Children and Youth. ABC broadcast a documentary about her work. She has led training sessions at General Electric, Exxon, AT&T, IBM and other corporations, and has lectured to the IRS, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Department of Education and the Postal Service. She has spoken at more than 350 colleges and universities. She has appeared on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" five times.

The fourth of five children, Elliott was born on her family's farm in Riceville in 1933, and was delivered by her Irish-American father himself. She was 10 before the farmhouse had running water and electricity. She attended a oneroom rural schoolhouse.Today, at 72, Elliott, who has short white hair, a penetrating gaze and no-nonsense demeanor, shows no signs of slowing. She and Darald split their time between a converted schoolhouse in Osage, Iowa, a town 18 miles from Riceville, and a home near Riverside, California.

Elliott's friends and family say she's tenacious, and has always had a reformer's zeal. "She was an excellent school teacher, but she has a way about her," says 90-year-old Riceville native Patricia Bodenham, who has known Elliott since Jane was a baby. "She stirs people up."

Vision and tenacity may get results, but they don't always endear a person to her neighbors. "Mention two words—Jane Elliott—and you get a flood of emotions from people," says Jim Cross, the Riceville Recorder's editor these days. "You can see the look on their faces. It brings up immediate anger and hatred."

When I met Elliott in 2003, she hadn't been back to Riceville in 12 years. We walked into the principal's office at RicevilleElementary School, Elliott's old haunt. The secretary on duty looked up, startled, as if she had just seen a ghost. "We want to see Room No. 10," Elliott said. It was typical of Elliott's blunt style—no "Good morning," no small talk. The secretary said the south side of the building was closed, something about waxing the hallways. "We just want to peek in," I volunteered. "We'll just be a couple of minutes."

Absolutely not. "This here is Jane Elliott," I said.
"She taught in this school for 18 years."
"I know who she is."

We backed out. I was stunned. Elliott was not. "They can't forget me," she said, "and because of who they are, they can't forgive me."


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