TERRE HAUTE —
Second-graders’ eyes and minds function differently.
They see the future unjaded. Their possibilities stand tall, not yet choked by the adult weeds of prejudice and bitterness.
Jeff Lorick hears the wisdom of second-graders every school year. Enjoys it. Immensely.
“It gives me hope,” Lorick said of the annual Vigo County Second Grade Writing Cadre. The contest invites kids from all 18 local elementary schools to pen their own promises to extend kindness to others, despite their differences. Grownups could benefit from the youngsters’ wisdom.
In the 2012 contest, the students first studied Dr. Seuss’ “Sneetches.” The book, a satire of discrimination, features one group of Sneetches born with a green star on their bellies initially shunning those without. A money-maker creates a star-on-the-belly machine, disrupting the prejudiced social order, and the Sneetches eventually realize the insanity of their behavior.
Then the kids wrote their pledges. A sampling of the finalists follows:
“I pledge to treat everybody the way I want to be treated. If they do not have a friend I would be [their] friend. I will never say mean things to anybody.”
“I pledge to treat everybody equally and treat people the way I want to be treated. I would be respectful. I will teach them the rules and speak kindly.”
“I pledge to treat people nicely. I wouldn’t [judge] others’ ideas. I wouldn’t [judge] anyone [on] how they look. I would respect others’ ideas and how they look.”
Unjaded and unconditional.
“The innocence and the acceptance are the two things that stand out,” Lorick said of the second-graders’ words in the contest, now in its seventh year.
Talking to classrooms full of children every year has been a highlight of Lorick’s role as executive director of the Terre Haute Human Relations Commission ever since he took over that position in October 2007. The 53-year-old businessman will visit five elementaries this week. As founder and proprietor for 30 years of Jeff’s Family Hair Care shop on North 13th Street, Lorick likes to talk with the kids about their various haircut styles.
It reminds them of differences they see but also accept.
Lorick is inspired “to hear how those second-graders are willing to embrace differences, and if we could keep that momentum going in their lives, that would be great.”
His job involves that momentum. It can get short-circuited when kids learn prejudices from their elders.
“People are a product of their environment,” Lorick said. “And, sometimes communities are isolated; there isn’t much diversity. So you have to look for diversity in other areas, and it’s there.”
The city formed the commission to handle issues of discrimination, inclusion and civil rights in employment, housing, finance, education and public accommodation, Lorick explained. Its mission, as stated on the city website, also aims for “valuing diversity and promoting harmony among all people” by enforcing the local human rights ordinance, eliminating equality barriers and educating the public.
Through six-plus years, the positives outweigh the negatives in the community’s response to those standards.
“The minuses have been so few,” Lorick said. “In terms of real inflammatory racial issues, those have been few in number — three or four.”
Problems arise here, as with any city, though. In the fall of 2007, a noose — a symbol of racial hatred — was found in a tree on the Indiana State University campus. The response by the university, leaders of student groups and the city resulted in a town hall meeting that drew more than 400 people to the Hulman Memorial Student Union, where people were allowed to ask questions, voice concerns. Student leaders urged classmates to maintain calm. ISU officials vowed to provide forums for open dialogue and to make the campus “a stronger, more tolerant university.”
The response allowed people to better understand each other, what hurts and what helps.
Lorick goes to the ISU campus next month for a different reason, one he looks forward to every March — the annual Human Rights Day observance. The theme of the March 26 program is the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. “We’re still talking about equality issues for women in 2013,” Lorick said, emphasizing the need for vigilance.
The current month of February serves as Black History Month, an observance enacted by President Ford in 1976 to raise awareness of African-Americans’ contributions to the nation. The process continues today as a work in progress. “This community has made great strides in the area of race,” Lorick said. “We still have a lot of room to grow in the areas of sexual orientation and religious freedom.”
In meetings with the city parks leaders, now assessing the long-term plans for the local system, Lorick offered reminders of the importance of accessibility for disabled people and the value of neighborhood parks to people in low-income areas. He touts the regularity of cultural celebrations by different student groups at ISU. He wishes the former Terre Haute Ethnic Festival — which featured a multi-national array of foods — still existed. (It ended in 2005.)
“We need to do more of that,” Lorick said.
During the past two autumns, the commission helped enlist the involvement of minorities in a pair of Community Theatre of Terre Haute productions — the social justice drama “A Lesson Before Dying” in 2011 and the musical “Hairspray” in 2012. “[The question] was, could we put together a diverse cast for a production that big in this community,” Lorick said of the latter play. The shows sold out, and an extra performance was added.
“To have a conscious effort to go out and involve other community members is a win,” Lorick said.
A variety of people working for the same cause. Some will dismiss such a concept as utopian. Second-graders see it differently.
“They have a real acceptance of people for who they are,” Lorick said. “When they see classmates, they don’t see differences. They see similarities.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or email@example.com.