Students experience segregation
Grant Thierolf told his American history class Monday morning that they were going to take some time out for an exercise in relaxation — they were going to color with crayons.
He gave each student on one side of the classroom a large box of like-new crayons, as well as cookies. The students in the other half of the classroom had to share a handful of old crayons worn down to nubs, and cookie crumbs.
He gave the first half of the class encouragement and patronized the other half saying, “I know that’s the best you can do.”
At the end of the exercise, he asked if they had received equal treatment. They all had crayons and paper, after all. But it was plain to see they weren’t being treated equally.
Thierolf used this exercise to introduce the “separate but equal” doctrine used to justify racial segregation in the first half of the 20th Century. The “separate but equal” doctrine originated with a Supreme Court ruling in 1896 that said railroads could segregate passengers as long as there were equal accommodations for all races.
“Separate but equal isn’t close to equal,” Thierolf said.
He told about the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and its work to fight for equal protection of the laws, as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.
The NAACP focused its attention on education, eventually leading to the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education supreme court case that overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine and ordered integration of schools.
However segregation took decades to dismantle and there are still schools in the South that have separate proms for white and black students.
Thierolf asked the students to look around the classroom. Growing up in Marion results in little interaction with people of other races, ethnicities, and cultures, but that students need to be able to live and work with people who aren’t like them. College will be the first broad exposure to this for many students.
Marion’s homogeneity, combined with the fact that today’s students are separated by generations from the height of the civil rights movement, means students don’t have the understanding of discrimination that comes from seeing it firsthand.
Teacher loves his job
Thierolf grew up in Beloit, where he had teachers who were always engaged with children and happy to go to work. Those teachers inspired him to become a teacher.
“Those were the guys I looked up to,” he said.
He said he would be happy if he could have even half the effect on his students those teachers had on him.
Thierolf earned his bachelor’s degree in teaching from the University of Kansas and taught middle school English for 4½ years at Garnett. He came to Marion in 1988 to teach high school social science and has been here ever since.
Thierolf also has a master’s degree from Emporia State University.
“It’s been everything I hoped for as a career,” he said. “The way I see it, I’m in grade 47 or 48.”
Thierolf says he learns something new every day, and that is the way he likes it.
Teaching can become frustrating, particularly when students do not understand the relevance of school, the subject matter, learning or thinking. All of those are important not just for academics, but for life.
“You hope the experiences in school prepare them for that,” Thierolf said.