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<i>'Jeremy's Story'</i> Teaches Tolerance - 2002-04-06

A traveling exhibit, now at the Greensboro Children's Museum in the eastern state of North Carolina, suggests that it's never too early to talk with children about the issue of bias. "Jeremy's Story" offers parents and teachers an opportunity to broach the subject of prejudice with children.

Although it's for children, "Jeremy's Story" is a serious exhibit. It focuses on complicated and harrowing topics… slavery, the Holocaust, child labor, AIDS. But it does so in a way that youngsters can understand… starting with a fictional conversation between an African-American boy named Jeremy and his grandfather. The old man recounts the family history, beginning with their first known ancestor.

It was the terrorist attack of September 11 that prompted the Greensboro Children's Museum take unusual steps to bring "Jeremy's Story" here. At the time, the museum had been looking for sponsors to underwrite the exhibit, which originated in Connecticut.

Museum marketing director Stephanie Skordas says after the attack, funding looked uncertain. "But we thought, especially since the events of September 11 had happened, and the patriotism that came out of it, but also there were a lot of hate crimes associated with that - you know, people looking for a way to express their feelings the wrong way that we thought it was even more important to bring Jeremy's Story to this area. And we went ahead and booked it on our own and paid for it out of museum funds," she says.

In addition to Jeremy, we meet other, real-life children who showed courage in the face of discrimination. Ruby Bridges was six when she integrated the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960. Photos in the exhibit show the little girl walking up the school stairs with a federal marshal by her side… while irate housewives yelled in protest. Ruby's memories are recorded by an actress.

Ruby Bridges says she prayed for the people who resented her. For most of the year, she was the only child in her class, because the white parents had pulled their kids out. But today, the William Frantz Elementary School is integrated, and Ms Bridges now works there as a parent liaison. What she remembers most of all, she says now, is the support she got from the black community in New Orleans. "Everybody came together to help us," she says. "They cooked meals and bought me clothes. They did everything to keep me in that school."

The exhibit also invites children to see what it was like to hide from the Nazis in an attic during World War II in Europe. They can crawl through a cramped hallway… and meet a noted diarist, as an actress portrays her.

Anne talks about watching friends and neighbors being taken away by the Nazis, and about listening to bombs and machine guns… wondering if her family would be next.

The stories of Anne Frank and Ruby Bridges are unsettling, even for adults. Still, Tray Matthews, who's here as a chaperone with his son's elementary school class, finds the exhibit compelling. "I teach my son to love everybody, no matter what race, creed or color, because we're all the same kind of people on the inside," he says. "My father's Puerto Rican and my mother's Native American and black. So I just see no color. I just see people as people."

Some students from the Guilford Country Day School in Greensboro are learning to do that, too. Hayden and Catherine, both fifth-graders, say the material in "Jeremy's Story" dovetails with some of the things they've been discussing in class.

Hayden: "Like we talked about the slaves, from a long time ago, and how people were mean to the immigrants that came into the country."
Catherine: "And how they pushed the Native Americans away, when it was their country."

And what do they think about people showing bias towards others?

Hayden: "I don 't think they should do that."
Catherine: "Don 't judge 'em before you know 'em."

After leaving Greensboro, "Jeremy's Story" will continue touring children's museums throughout the nation…profiling youngsters who showed courage in the face of discrimination, and in their own way, helped make the world better for others.