One Tribe

by beccaborrelli


"Embrace of Peace." George Tooker. 1988

Want to know something cute? Sure you do.

Ask elementary kids about race.




Last year I overheard a Kindergartener to a Third Grader:

“Why do they call Jaylan “black? He’s not black he’s “tan.”

“That’s just something adults say. But you’re right, he’s tan.”

Gold star for an answer that surpasses most adult intellects. I salute you my 65 pound mini-friend.


My first year teaching an Egyptian student named Kareem was looking on the Internet at a desert photograph as a reference for a painting.

“Miss B, why are there houses?”

I look. Indeed, Kareem is looking at a picture of Iraq- cars, children, houses… and U.S. tanks. I was confused.

“I don’t know Kareem, it’s a city.”

“Yeah but isn’t this a picture of Iraq?”

“Yeah it is…” I say absentmindedly as I help another kiddo find a blue oil pastel.

“Well what I mean is… there are people there?”

“Yes Kareem… what are you asking me?”

“Like- kids and stuff. I thought the war was fought in the desert.”

Truth fires connections through brazen brain matter. In mere seconds I am struck by a mixture of amusement and sadness.

“Iraq has a desert climate. But there are cities there just like here. Did you think the fighting was happening in an empty desert?”

Kareem presses troubled lips together and nods. I begin wishing I wasn’t the one to tell this third grader that indeed- the war he was hearing about wasn’t being fought in a sandy vacuum.

“So what happens to the people?” He looks at me with big brown eyes.

It is in this moment- sitting on a red plastic chair in a windowless, cinder block room with 25 pairs of eyes on me- that I wish I had the phone number for the president. He ought to be answering this. Only Capitol Hill, oil companies, Wall Street, the Defense industry, and adult citizens pumped full of fear think it’s more “complicated” than this Third Grader is now framing it before my very brazen eyes.


Three weeks ago at 2:30 on a Friday my last class of Fourth graders arrives. They come in and sit on the floor as they always do for directions. Bella raises her hand.

“Miss B, can I ask you something?”

“Why are we in a war?”

I look around at the others. They gaze back at me, as if this is the most appropriate question in the world to ask the Art Teacher during the first 60 seconds of class.

“Well I suppose, if you ask 100 different people that question, you’ll get about 100 different answers.”

I feel strangely proud of this diplomatic response. One that will not incite any agnry parent email this weekend.

She gives me a look.

An “oh you don’t know either” look.

Touche my little nine year old.

I try to do better.

“I mean, it’s a fight- just like a fight you might see on the playground- only much bigger. So think about kid fights. Why do they happen?”

Thus ensues a 15 minute discussion that has nothing to do with clay. Kiddos are the most attentive I’ve see since I first met them in Kindergarten. We never really resolve Bella’s inquiry. I awkwardly move on into a glaze demo and the topic is dropped.

The next week I put in “One Tribe” by Black Eyed Peas. We listen as we work, and one of the students says:

“This song is like a work of art.”

And suddenly a lightening bolt enters my cranium through the ceiling tiles of our vaulted hospital white art room. I hear brain matter sizzle- I swear.

“Would you like to turn this song into visual art?”

Every head turns towards me with saucer size eyes and wide toothy grins. I hear claps and muffled “yesssssss….”

Crap. Couldn’t the universe find a more seasoned, organized Disney Teacher of the year to send this idea to? Isn’t Ron White looking for a good multi-cultural art integrated lesson? Crap, Crap, Crap.

As I look around at them, I realize I’ve been handed an opportunity most teachers dream about. Hell- one that I dream about. Shit, I hope I don’t screw it up.