Got to be carefully taught

A 1949 Broadway musical by Rogers and Hammerstein, “South Pacific,” contains a profound song lyric.

The song is “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.” A few lyrics follow: “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear; you’ve got to be taught from year to year, it’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear; you’ve got to be carefully taught.”

The highly successful musical then lists things we need to hate and fear: “People whose skin is a different shade,” “People whose eyes are oddly made,” and also, “You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are 6 or 7 or 8, to hate all the people your relatives hate . . .” The words, clearly, are ironic.

I first heard those lyrics around 1950. Even at age, 11, I wondered why the lyrics hinted at prejudice — maybe even encouraging it. Hammerstein’s lyrics offended some, particularly music lovers from the Deep South. That didn’t deter the composers, who faced the issue of racial prejudice by keeping “Carefully Taught” as a major part of the musical.

That was when I was just being exposed to racial prejudice. I’m glad that the composers kept the lyrics as written. I kept that tune and others, from “South Pacific” in my dear little head all the way back from the party.

I drove with my wife, Bonnie, as well as Tookta and Kitty, the two Asian Foreign Exchange students who’d made the trip with us for a Christmas gift exchange.

Because we’re the only host family in the state connected with American Field Services, not based in Albuquerque or Santa Fe, it’s sometimes hard for us to get to the hub of Foreign Exchange activity, as we need to drive an extra two hours to join the fun.

As a result, we aren’t well acquainted with most of the students or their host families. The party was held in a private home, and about 60 of us filled the house.

As we entered, with our own guest students, Tookta, from Thailand, and Kitty, from China, Bonnie and I became aware of a mini-United Nations atmosphere in which people “whose eyes are oddly made” and “whose skin is a different shade” abounded.

The students presented a brief introduction about their country’s holidays, and we were exposed to myriad backgrounds, upbringing, customs, modes of dress, accents and pigmentation.

My reaction — and possibly that of several other adult hosts — was that we were among a wonderful mixture of potential pacemakers whose only bonds currently might be the English language. We knew less than half of the students, and we reveled at hearing the different accents. Most of the adult hosts appeared to be what we call middle-class.

As the students introduced themselves, we picked up an array of birth places and accents: East Indian, Moroccan. Italian, Finnish, Malian, Thai, Chinese, Swahili and German. And we observed a variety of skin tones. As I mentioned, virtually every word we heard was in English. But more importantly, most of us appeared thrilled at how intelligent, open-minded, likable, cooperative and polite each person was.

We became convinced of the mutual respect — and maybe even love — that were palpable that evening in Albuquerque.

Each student was asked to show up with an inexpensive gift to exchange. I never caught the name of the game — which we Trujillos have often played in our home for Christmases. It involves drawing numbers to determine the order of opening gifts.

Whoever draws “1” may choose any one of the gifts. The person who draws “2” goes second, and opens yet another gift.

Those with the higher numbers are allowed to force one of the earlier players to yield their gift, with the result that few gifts remain in the possession of the original students.

Those with the higher numbers are free to “cop” a gift from someone with a lower number, but in our game, no gift could go through more than three “owners.”

The spirit of cooperation, laughter and good will was evident.

We adults watched as the students frantically bargained, either to claim or to be rid of a gift. That demonstrated how well these students got along. The most bartered-for items were those that contained chocolate.

Let’s not forget that some of the students’ origins may have placed them half a globe away.

Two hours later on the drive back to Las Vegas, Bonnie and I got set to ask Kitty and Tookta what they’d learned about sisterhood and brotherhood as a result of their close fellowship with others from entirely different continents.

We hoped for a recitation of positive responses and insights that we hadn’t even thought of. But as we asked the girls, we discovered that both already were copping a few “zees,” as their snoring got drummed in our dear little ears.

Our two girls could sleep through a hurricane!

But quizzing them on their impressions of the group and the game will come. In time. Also on that drive home, as the girls made wood-sawing sounds, Bonnie and I continued our fast-becoming-main-topic of conversation: our own country’s political enmity, lies, exaggerations admissions and denials of sexual misconduct and the re-emergence of that word — “collusion” — that suddenly has become part of everybody’s vocabulary.

Will peace ever come? Dealing with foreign exchange students and get-away students from the United World College gives me hope that all can co-exist. But too many “leaders,” adults, motivated by greed, the lust for power and plain prejudice are making sure peace won’t be coming any time soon.

But let’s all try to remain optimistic.

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