Source photos: Charlotte Button. Design: DF/Public Seminar
Steven Armstrong was the first to show up in Classroom No. 1O on the morning of Friday, April 5, 1968.
“Hey, Mrs. Elliott,” Steven said as he slung his books on his desk. “They shot that King last night! Why’d they shoot that King?”
Steven was an alert, savvy kid. The son of a Mitchell County road-maintenance worker, he looked like he’d stepped right out of The Little Rascals. Mischievous, self-assured Steven ought to be commended for bringing up last night’s terrible news, but this wasn’t the time. Not yet, at least. “We’ll talk about that a little later,” Elliott told him.
More students filed into the classroom. Debbie Anderson, Alan Moss, Jeanette Goodale, Billy Thompson, Danny Lewis, Byron Bucknell. And just as the bell rang, Lowell Sprung, Ted Perzynski, Cindy Meyer, and Nancy Schumann raced to their desks. By 8:35, all twenty-eight children had found their places.
The children seemed particularly eager that day. Spring’s warmth was palpable. The school year would be over in six weeks. And then summer. Glorious summer.
But third graders are always eager and enthusiastic, always raring to go. Third grade was the last grade before kids, even rural kids, started getting moody and cliquish. Once children were in fifth and sixth grades, they really weren’t children any longer. Third grade was a magical, in-between moment for kids, but also for their teacher.
That didn’t mean that Elliott would let her students walk all over her. She was strict, a stickler of a teacher. Her most repeated classroom refrain was, “Good listeners have quiet hands and feet.” If you were in her class, you had to listen and behave, or face Mrs. Elliott’s wrath—the wagging finger, furrowed forehead, darting eyes, then drop-dead stare. She didn’t take back talk. What she said went. Mrs. Elliott was the one in charge. It was the price to pay. But activities in Classroom No. 1O were usually so much fun, it was worth it.
Elliott announced that she had cooked up something special for the day. And it wouldn’t involve spelling, arithmetic, or penmanship!
A spontaneous cheer arose from the children.
The kids’ cheery disposition comforted Elliott, but at the same time, stabbed at her. She still had time to change the lesson plan. Maybe it would be going too far. Were these children ready to be exposed to such a horrific dose of make-believe? If she were going to call off the experiment, this would be the time. No one would be any wiser.
If she did go ahead, she knew there’d be consequences. The experiment wouldn’t be just another activity in the long line of Mrs. Elliott’s class projects. Those were exercises, nothing compared to the deceptive experiment Elliott was about to unleash. Today, Elliott would lie to her kids to provoke them. She would encourage students to act on their impulses, however cruel they might turn out to be.
The way she saw herself through this conundrum was that the experiment would be for the students’ good. But lying, knowingly misleading children, encouraging bullying? An adult—a trusted teacher—lying to hammer home what she believed was a fundamental truth vital to her students’ cultural well-being?
Could Elliott justify this?
She knew she was complicating matters by not running the experiment past Principal Brandmill or alerting the kids’ parents. But if Elliott had clued them in every time she’d come up with a “teaching moment,” she’d never have accomplished half the things she’d introduced in Classroom No. 1O. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. was fresh in her students’ minds—at least, it should have been. If there ever were a time, this was it.
Thus far, Brandmill had supported her. Maybe that’s because as a child he had had polio, resulting in a deformed arm, and was dyslexic himself. It was the principal’s job to listen and be agreeable. If parents or teachers had problems with Elliott, let them discuss them with Brandmill. That was his job; Elliott’s was to teach.
What was the worst that could happen?
She took the class roll. Then, as she did every morning, she stood, faced the flag, placed her right hand over her chest, and led the children in the Pledge of Allegiance.
As they did every morning, the students remained standing and sang “God Bless America.” Per their usual, it was an off-key rendition, a medley of tentative sopranos and wobbly altos.
Now was the time to return to Steven Armstrong’s prescient question. Elliott started out gingerly. She asked what the children knew about Negroes—that was the word, at least the polite word, that people in Riceville used. After a collective pause, without any prompting, came an onslaught: Negroes are dumb, they don’t bathe, they have a hard time keeping jobs. One boy said Negroes like to riot in cities, stealing anything they can get their hands on. “They just go in and take whatever they want. Televisions, stereos, cameras. I seen it on TV.”
The students said all this without malice, as though sharing that they had eaten Cheerios or Quaker oatmeal for breakfast. That’s just the way Negroes are. Everyone agreed, nodding their heads in unison.
“And how do you know all this?” Elliott asked, doing her best to keep her voice neutral.
“My dad said so.”
“On TV you see ’em killing people.” “Their houses are all broken up and dirty.”
“My dad says they’d better not try to move in by us!”
“If you’re gonna get kidnapped, it’d be a Black person who’d do it.” “If a Negro man ever found you in a bathroom, he’d kill you.”
There was a collective pause, as though the students were thinking, “Why are we wasting our time talking about Negroes? Who cares about Negroes? What does any of this have to do with us? Can’t we just get on with the class project Mrs. Elliott promised?”
Elliott walked over to the blackboard and picked up a stick of chalk, which snapped in two the moment she started writing, creating a plume of white dust that floated to the floor.
She picked up another stick and wrote three words in perfectly looped cursive: DISCRIMINATION, PREJUDICE, RACISM.
They were a mouthful for third graders, and Elliott pronounced each slowly and with purpose. She repeated them.
Elliott said that because of the color of their skin, Negroes had a terrible time—from the instant they awoke in the morning to the moment they drifted off to sleep at night, from when they were born to when they died. And it was all because of these three words—discrimination, prejudice, and racism.
The students reacted the way Elliott knew they’d react. One girl with short hair, clipped bangs, and cat’s-eye glasses like Elliott’s said she thought that was terrible. A boy in the second row wearing a plaid shirt volunteered that he once saw a Negro man in Rochester, Minnesota, and “he looked like he’d been dipped in chocolate.” Another boy in the back with dungarees and a striped shirt said that when he was at the state fair in Des Moines, he saw a Negro and asked his mother why the man was “so dirty.” Several students laughed in a good-natured way. If there was any malice, Elliott didn’t notice it.
The children’s remarks were a nice setup. But to move forward, Elliott knew she needed to involve the students in a more visceral way.
That’s when she started.
“How do you think it would feel to be a Negro boy or girl? It would be hard to know, wouldn’t it, unless we actually experienced DISCRIMINATION ourselves. Would you like to find out?”
This time there wasn’t a chorus of YAAAAAAAAY. The reaction was a curious, quizzical silence. Julie Kleckner cocked her head. Ted Perzynski raised his eyebrows. Best friends Ricky Sletten and Lowell Sprung shot each other what-the-heck looks.
Elliott stood in front of her twenty-eight students, each displaying a combination of uneasy wonder and anticipation. No sense of alarm had crept into any of the kids’ faces, at least none Elliott could discern.
“It might be interesting to judge people by the color of their eyes,” Elliott teased. “Would you like to try?”
What had Mrs. Elliott cooked up this time?
There were some preliminaries to take care of. First, Elliott asked the children to identify one another by eye color. The children paired off, staring into each other’s eyes. Kids with glasses had to take them off.
“He’s got blue eyes!”
“Mrs. Elliott, Debbie’s got brown eyes!” “Blue!”
“Open your eyes wider!”
“Her eyes aren’t brown or blue!”
Elliott had been right. Julie Kleckner and Ricky Sletten did have green eyes. Kim Reynolds had hazel eyes.
Elliott told the children to stand with the others who had the same eye color. Jostling and shuffling, the brown-eyed and blue-eyed students quickly formed two groups. But Julie, Ricky, and Kim didn’t know where to go.
“What are we supposed to do, Mrs. Elliott?” Julie asked, afraid she’d be left out.
“Which group are we supposed to join?” Kim asked.
Elliott lumped Julie, Ricky, and Kim with the blue-eyed kids. This being Iowa, fifteen students had blue eyes, and ten had brown eyes. With Julie, Ricky, and Kim, that meant that there were eighteen children in the blue-eyed group and ten in the brown-eyed group.
Elliott issued more directives. “All you brown-eyed children, push your desks to the front of the room.”
The children looked puzzled. “You heard me. Push them to the front.
You’re the smarter kids. That’s where you belong!”
The comment didn’t seem to register with the children, so Elliott repeated it.
“Go ahead,” she told the brown-eyed group. “You ought to be sitting up front. Blue-eyed children, push your desks to the back. As far away as you can!”
There was no recognition among the children of what Elliott was suggesting. Had the kids heard her right?
The order meant that all the children in Classroom No. 1O had to move their desks to make room for a new configuration of furniture. If Mrs. Elliott says it, I guess that’s what we have to do. Students jockeyed their desks next to their best friends of the same eye color in the front and in the back. It caused a momentary uproar. The sound of furniture being moved on the linoleum floor made for a racket up and down the hallway.
Something was about to happen. Some of the kids seemed excited, others seemed unsure and wary.
With the furniture rearranged, Elliott pronounced that this is where everyone deserved to be.
There was a marked change in her tone. Mrs. Elliott sounded testy and annoyed. She tapped her foot impatiently.
“You are the superior children,” Elliott said, pointing to the brown-eyed kids up front. “And you,” she said, arching her eyebrows toward the blue-eyed children, “are inferior! You know what ‘inferior’ means, don’t you?”
Without waiting for an answer, Elliott said peevishly, “Well, that figures.” The kids didn’t seem to follow.
“See, the blue-eyed children aren’t as clean as the brown-eyed people up front. They can’t even keep their desks clean! It’s true! Just look at their desks! Take a look for yourself!”
In fact, the desks of the brown-eyed children were tidier. Maybe that was because there weren’t as many of them; maybe it was because the brown-eyed children had had more time to put their stuff in order. But Mrs. Elliott was right. The desks up front looked neater and more organized. Everyone could see that.
The brown-eyed students responded by cheering, while those in the blue-eyed group sat motionless and glum.
“The brown-eyed people are the better people in this room,” Elliott said. “They are cleaner. They are smarter.”
Elliott went around the room slowly, making eye contact with each child until she got a nod back.
“They are not,” one blue-eyed boy said under his breath from the group in the back.
“Oh, yes, they are!” Elliott said, her eyes open wide. She wagged her index
finger at the blue-eyed boy with the audacity to question her.
“Brown-eyed people are more intelligent than blue-eyed people. It’s about time you knew the truth. You’re old enough to know this.”
She slowed her cadence. This was the students’ cue to pay attention. Quiet hands and feet.
“Do. You. All. Understand?”
“Yes, Mrs. Elliott,” the class answered dutifully as one.
“Brown-eyed people,” she continued, “are better than those with blue eyes. Blue-eyed people don’t take good care of things. You give them something nice and they just wreck it.
“Think about this with the people you know. Think about your own brothers and sisters who have blue eyes. They’re always messy, right? They are!”
Elliott could see the students taking all this in, considering the eye color of their siblings and friends, maybe of their own parents. If Mrs. Elliott said it, it must be true. There was no arguing with her. Several brown-eyed children had impish smiles creeping up on their faces.
By now, Elliott realized an unmistakable change had transformed all the children. A chasm had begun to divide the kids. The desks up front already said that. The brown-eyed children looked smug while their blue-eyed counterparts in the back fidgeted, looking down at the floor or their desks.
This was what Elliott had been waiting for, and for the briefest of moments, she shivered.
“Do blue-eyed people remember what they’ve been taught?” Elliott asked.
Without a moment’s hesitation, the brown-eyed kids responded with a resounding “NO!”
“Can we trust blue-eyed people? Do they ever do what they’re told?” “NO!” the brown-eyed children shouted back.
Elliott could see that the blue-eyed kids didn’t like this, but they said nothing. It was as though they had become mutes.
Elliott rattled off a list of requirements for the day, which included a decree that the blue-eyed group must use paper cups if any of them wanted to drink from the water fountains in the hallway.
“Why?” a blue-eyed girl asked haltingly, on the verge of tears.
“’Cause we might catch something from you,” a brown-eyed boy shot back.
All the students looked toward Mrs. Elliott, who pleasanty nodded. “That’s right,” she said.
If eyes, no matter their color, are windows to the soul, then Elliott had given herself the almighty ability to peer into twenty-eight souls that morning. She had become instigator and witness to a nightmare about to unfold.
The empowered brown-eyed kids proceeded to berate the blue-eyed children mercilessly, and Elliott did nothing to stop them.
Instead, she egged them on.
When a blue-eyed boy mumbled an answer, Elliott raised her voice and ordered, “Speak up, James!”
James was tongue-tied. He slumped in his chair, drooped his shoulders, and said nothing.
“Well, whaddja expect, Mrs. Elliott?” one of the brown-eyed boys up front volunteered. “He’s got blue eyes!”
“That’s just how those blue-eyed people are!” Elliott crowed. “Isn’t that true?”
“Yes, Mrs. Elliott” came the reply, this time from all the children.
All year long, Elliott had organized her classroom on the basis of row leaders, with one child per row in the first seat taking charge of everyone behind. Row leaders were chosen because they were smart, mature, and responsible, Mrs. Elliott’s lieutenants. But today all that changed. Any blue- eyed student who had been a row leader was now in the inferior group and, by default, was an underling.
Watching the drama unfold, blue-eyed Elliott knew it was only a matter of time before the children would make her.
That moment came sooner than expected.
About an hour into the experiment, a brown-eyed girl asked, “Hey, Mrs.
Elliott, how come you’re the teacher if you got blue eyes?”
It was an impertinent question, and just before Elliott could answer, brown-eyed Steven Knode jumped in. “If she didn’t have ’em blue eyes, she’d be the principal!”
Elliott couldn’t help but grin, at least to herself, not just for Steven’s insight, but because Mr. Brandmill, the principal, did, in fact, have brown eyes.
To the class, Elliott responded with a forlorn shrug, as though to concede how fortunate she was that the brown-eyed men in charge had allowed her to be a teacher despite her blue eyes.
Next, she informed the children that no one from the blue-eyed group would be allowed on the playground equipment, because, she said, “They’re careless. Everyone knows that. They might break something.”
Elliott went further, instructing the brown-eyed children not to allow any of the blue-eyed kids to play with them—even if they were friends. “Brown- eyed children need to play only with brown-eyed children. Blue-eyed children, you play among yourselves. There will be no exceptions. Does everyone understand?”
“Yes, Mrs. Elliott.”
Elliott issued more rules. The blue-eyed children would have to wait for the brown-eyed students to finish before being allowed to eat lunch. For recess, the brown-eyed children would get five more minutes.
“Do you understand, children? Have I made myself clear?” “Yes, Mrs. Elliott.”
On her way to school that day, Elliott had thought about adding geography to the experiment, and it came to her to show a world map to her students. She wanted the children to see where Africa is and how large it is in comparison with the United States. Just as Elliott pulled down the metal clasp to the map, the clasp slipped out of her fingers. The map retracted, spinning round and round on its roller, making the flapping sound that everyone who attended school prior to PowerPoint remembers.
“Well, I’ve done it again,” Elliott muttered as much to herself as to the children.
“You got blue eyes, haven’t ya?” brown-eyed Debbie Hughes declared to everyone.H
Debbie’s mouthy rebuke was a stunner. The students laughed uneasily. Tossing a wisecrack at a teacher, especially someone as fierce as Mrs. Elliott, showed a lot of gall for a third grader, and for an instant, as Elliott was later to recall, her first reaction was to backhand Debbie, a temptation she fortunately resisted.I
“Oh, Debbie, you know she’s never done that right,” said a blue-eyed girl in the back row. Elliott couldn’t help but grin, as did three or four of the children in the front of the room.
For the rest of the morning, Elliott was unrelenting. While on the play- ground, brown-eyed Bruce Fox would later recall, “Mrs. Elliott told a boy who was getting bullied that the next time that happens, ‘You smack ’em in the nose.’ She put her fingers together in a fist to show how it ought to be done.”J If blue-eyed students were playing jump rope or kickball, Fox remembered, Elliott urged the brown-eyed kids, “You take it away from them! That’s your right! Do it!”
A brown-eyed student, Debra Anderson, recalled, “One of my friends had blue eyes, and I couldn’t play with her. I kinda hung out by myself and played on the swings and the monkey bars. I felt sick.”
Green-eyed Julie Kleckner, who’d been folded in with the blue-eyed kids, tried to play with two brown-eyed girls but they pushed her away. That was bad enough, but back in the classroom, Elliott humiliated Julie by ordering her to kneel in front of everyone and apologize to the entire class.
For all the terror Elliott had unleashed that morning, she noted assorted instances of good. Several of the slower students with brown eyes, given a boost of superiority, had transformed themselves into confident class leaders. They whizzed through reading, reciting sentences and paragraphs without hesitation. All this was at the expense of the blue-eyed students, now so unsure of themselves that several stuttered when called on. Some mumbled, which prompted Elliott to scold them. “Speak up!” she bellowed.
When music period began and the children moved to another classroom, Elliott headed to the teachers’ lounge. At that moment, five teachers were in the lounge, eating their lunches and chatting. Two were playing cards.
By then, Elliott felt a heady sense of accomplishment. The classroom experiment had worked. Elliott didn’t know how she felt or should feel— either ecstatic or heartbroken. But she was bursting to tell the other teachers what she had done.
Elliott started by asking what the other women were doing to bring last night’s news about the King assassination into their own classrooms. These were veteran teachers; several had taught at Riceville Elementary for as long as twenty-five years.
Something happened last night? seemed to be the collective response.
Elliott couldn’t help herself. She spilled to the room what she had cooked up that morning. She wanted the other teachers to know.
Elliott wasn’t sure what she was expecting. Certainly not a clap on the back. Maybe just a nod of approval.
But all Elliott got were giggles. The teachers in the teachers’ lounge couldn’t stop laughing.
“I don’t know how you have time for all that extra stuff,” one teacher, Angela May, said, Elliott recalled. “It’s all I can do to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic.”
The others seemed to agree, then looked toward the most experienced teacher in the group.
“I don’t know why you’re doing that,” she said, as though settling the matter, Elliott recalled. “I thought it was about time someone shot that son of a bitch.”
From Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes: A Cautionary Tale of Race and Brutality by Stephen G. Bloom, published by the University of California Press, reprinted with permission.
Stephen G. Bloom is an award-winning journalist and author of five nonfiction books: The Audacity of Inez Burns, Tears of Mermaids, The Oxford Project, Inside the Writer’s Mind, and Postville. He is Professor of Journalism at the University of Iowa.