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Ten little Indians' in Lansing

Robert Fulghum wrote "All I ever needed to know, I learned in Kindergarten." All I remember about kindergarten was singing, having my very own little mat to sleep on at nap time and what seemed like a very long, sometimes scary, walk home holding the hand of my best friend Kathleen.
Since I don't have Fulghum's great kindergarten memories, I would probably amend his reflections to say that "All I ever needed to know, I learned in grades K-3." For me this was the crucial period when I learned, although I may not have understood it at the time, life's lessons that have stayed with me all of my life.
I was reminded of these "wonder years" during a recent visit to the state capital in Lansing. Besides the group of activists lobbying for "Matt's Safe School Law" (HB4162), the halls of the building were filled with several school groups. Walking in two's, maintaining the buddy system, these youngsters were not just taking in the grandeur of the building, but were also going to see how their government worked.
While the safe schools group lunched, we were entertained by the angelic voices of a class of elementary school children singing. Their repertoire included several of the songs I remembered from my days in elementary school. One of the songs they sang was "Ten Little Indians."
As I listened to this song from a simpler, less complicated time in my life I noticed a fellow lobbyist and friend leaning against the wall. Her face was pale. Her expression pained but also angry as if having just heard some horrific, bad news.

"Do you hear that?" she asked. "Do you hear what they're singing?" I listened to the song, "Seven little, Eight little, Nine little Indians." "OK" I thought. It's "Ten Little Indians." Who didn't know that song? Isn't it how just about every child I knew, myself included, learned how to count? I wondered if she had had some traumatic event happen while learning to count.
Being a recovering Catholic, of course an image of a menacing nun, ruler in hand, standing over my friend, waiting to give a sharp rap across the knuckle if she messed up came to mind. Warily I asked, "What's wrong?"
"It's that song" she said. "That song is not just about counting. It's about the white man's attempt to annihilate Native Americans. Pioneers sang it to their children to sooth their fears. You wouldn't understand. I had to grow up singing that song, hearing that song like it was harmless. Singing it not realizing it was celebrating the death of my ancestors. I hate it. You wouldn't understand," she said. But I did.
To this day I don't eat pancakes, I've tried but they are just hard to swallow. Not because they are improperly prepared but because of the third grade. Being the only Black child in the third grade I was subjected to many taunts, stupid questions and well meaning but hurtful educational experiences. One of the books we read was "The Story of Little Black Sambo" Although the setting of the book was clearly in India; the illustrations in the American version were re-interpreted to a more demeaning depiction of Sambo as an African American child. The story ends with the tigers that had been tormenting Sambo racing around a tree so fast that they turn into butter which Sambo takes home and uses to eat 169 pancakes for his supper.
I had already been dealing with the taunts of my primary antagonist Joey about pancakes. I can still remember him shouting out "What's the matter Aunt Jemima? Ain't your mama on the cover of the pancake mix?" After reading "The Story of Little Black Sambo" the taunts intensified. Joey would call me "little Black Samba" and the other children roared with laughter. Yes, I understood how she was feeling.
Ironically these painful memories came to mind for both of us on a day when we were in Lansing to lobby not just for "Matt's Safe School" law but to tell legislatures why it was so important to leave enumeration in the bill. Enumeration is a legal term for the list of protected classes in law. The proposed law would include sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, something conservatives opposed and we felt crucial to stopping bullying, harassment and discrimination in schools.
I recall one legislature opposed to enumeration saying that by enumerating we were singling out certain persons and there was no way to cover everything a child was bullied for. He believed that all children should be safe in school, thus enumeration was not needed. Although in theory I agree, I recognize that we live in a society where discrimination, racism and hatred have not just been enshrined but blindly accepted. If all we ever need to know we learn in Kindergarten (or grades K-3), then this experience must not include seeds of racism, stereotyping and homophobia.
Perhaps if some of our state legislatures had learned that it is not OK to mock and stereotype in K-3, not just those lobbying that day but the school children also sitting in the gallery would not have had to witness the appalling display of representatives disrupting the chamber, waving their arms and shouting they were being bullied.
If we do not know our history, we are destined to perpetuate the same mistakes, discriminations and xenophobia. We have seen the adverse effects on our children and our country of racism and stereotyping. Fodder for bullying can come from something as simple as a childhood song or story. There is no way we could enumerate all of the ways children are bullied but by enumerating we provide a platform for learning, discussion, and cultural awareness where children feel safe and valued not just in school but in society as unique individuals.
So with this, I offer this new song to teach counting:

Ten Little Bigots
One little, Two little, three little bigots
Four little, five little, six little bigots
Seven little, eight little, nine little bigots
Eliminate ten bigots today
Ten little, Nine little, eight little bigots
Seven little, six little, five little bigots
Four little, three little, two little bigots
Even one little bigot has to go.
Did you know that Agatha Christie's best selling mystery of all time "AND THEN THERE WER NONE" was also known as TEN LITTLE INDIANS and originally as TEN LITTLE NIGGERS?



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