Back in 2015, I remember walking into Kelsey Engel’s first grade class at Northfield Elementary School.
It was your typical January day in western Nebraska. I was looking for a story for the newspaper and found myself in Mrs. Engel’s class.
At first the students were looking at me but Mrs. Engel drew their attention back to her at the front of the class. She talked about what was going to take place that day and then lead her students to the back of the classroom and had them sit down in a circle around paper and some different color paints.
She squeezed a tube of dark brown paint onto the paper.
“We all have brown pigments in our skin,” she told her students. “Our skin color is all different but it all starts with the same color.”
The students looked at the paint, then at their hands.
“Shall we give it a try?” she asked her students.
“Yes,” they responded.
“I’m going to add white to our brown, when the color matches your skin color we will paint your hand and you can make a hand print,” Engel said.
As Engel added white, the students began checking their hands. If they thought the color was close they came over to check their skin color to the brown and white paint mixture.
“Does that match yours?” Engel asked one of the students.
The student came over, held out her hand.
“Does it match?”
Mrs. Engel took her paint brush and covered the student’s hand with the shade of brown. She then returned to her place in the circle and placed her hand on a paper in front of her making a hand print.
Engel added more white paint and the students began coming up, matching their skin color to the new shade of brown. Engel painted their hand and they made their hand prints.
Turning to one young man, she asked, “Does this color match your skin color?”
He held his hand close to the paint, looked up at Engel with a smile and said, “Yes.”
She continued to add paint until each of her 22 first-graders matched their skin color to one of the shades of brown.
The lesson Mrs. Engel was teaching is one we all need to learn today as racial issues have exploded around the world following the horrible death of an African American in Minneapolis.
As Mrs. Engel so perfectly taught her students, at our core, black, white and every shade in between, we are all are all the same.
Throughout our history as a nation and as a people, we have not always seen ourselves this way. We have lifted up one nationality, one color, over others. This is racism.
Racism is ugly, always has been and always will be. Whether it was toward African Americans, Native Americans, Irish Americans, Japanese Americans, Hispanic Americans, German Russian Americans, or any other group, it would be nice to erase it from our history, but we cannot and must not. By trying to erase it, we run a risk of forgetting about the struggles and we fail to learn from our mistakes.
We are all a product of our time and must stop applying today’s understanding and beliefs to those of the past. Many of our greatest leaders, like today, have not lived perfect lives. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both owned slaves, but both played key roles in the formation of this great nation. They cannot and should not be erased from our history.
Throughout the history of America, no one has been perfect.
These imperfect men and women have lessons to teach us both from their positive and negative attributes.
“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools,” civil rights activist Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said.
Together, we must learn from the past so we can make for a better future.
Our learning needs to start with the same lesson Mrs. Engel taught to her students.
“Everybody has brown in their skin,” one of her students said. “Our skin color is all the same.”