The food at a Saranac Lake multicultural elementary school event ranged from homemade hurmasice, a Bosnian celebration cake, to squares of German chocolate, to Mexican flan and Scottish shortbread.
The edible samples were as unique as the students – though at first glance, the students seem to be so similar. It was teacher Temnit Muldowney, a native of Eritrea, who recognized that while many students in this small mountain community may seem to be homogeneous, there is so much diversity beyond first appearances. She wanted to draw that out.
During the past few years, Muldowney said she started hearing little children using coarse insults and putting each other down in ways she had not heard before. “Hurtful words were being spoken to each other,” she said.
Her goal was to have students see they are all diverse. Working with colleague Jesse Jakobe, a speech pathologist who is also a member of the Saranac Lake Teachers Association, they put together their first multicultural event last year. They also developed social diversity and cultural material for their colleagues to incorporate into the curriculum. In addition, the school celebrated Chinese New Year.
This year was the second community multicultural event, where students and their families celebrated heritages from a rich bounty of origins. Bosnia, Italy, Ireland, Asia, Germany, Jamaica, Canada, Eritria, Latvia, Japan, France, Denmark, Australia, Puerto Rico and many more ethnicities were heralded in displays, maps, foods, clothing, and artifacts from 34 countries. Amber stones, a small kangaroo rug, and the top 10 candies from Germany were among many pop-ups.
“People want to be accepted,” said NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Philippe Abraham, who oversees social justice for the statewide organization. Walking around the event and viewing the different displays, he noted, “This proves that anywhere people have the right intentions, they can make it happen. That’s the beauty of many people getting together and making a difference.”
The multicultural celebration helps students explore differences and is voluntary.
“This event was founded by a member who wanted to raise issues around justice and tolerance,” said Saranac Lake TA President Don Carlisto. Fifty-five families prepared displays, and more than 300 people attended.
School dental hygienist Suzanne Snizek wore the bright blue, green, black and white Freedom tartan colors since her family originates from Scotland, while handing out free multicultural books to students from First Book, Inc. through NYSUT and the American Federation of Teachers.
“Lee Castle is our clan castle,” she said. “I’ve been to Scotland and the Highland Games. The Scottish love to sing and dance; they have a great sense of humor.” The Freedom tartan is for Scots who would like to be their own sovereign nation, apart from the United Kingdom, she said.
Students eagerly chose from diverse books set out on display, including Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love; Rescue & Jessica by Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes; Mixed, A Colorful Story by Arree Chung; Newberry Award winner El Deafo by Cece Bell, and Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson.
High school global history and government teacher Kris Miemis and his son Sam set up a display on Latvia. SLTA member Miemis was the first generation born in America; his father was born in a refugee camp in Germany and his mom was born in Latvia, he said. They met in the United States.
The amber geodes and small pieces of jewelry at their display were a draw to many onlookers. Amber, he explained, is petrified sap, and it can easily be found along Latvian beaches.
Miemis explained that Latvia regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Married to Saranac Lake teacher Karen Miemis, the couple has two sons who speak fluent Latvian and have spent full summers there.
While participants may not have voyaged on a ship or an airplane, the school community was able to travel to many new lands through the program and see their friends through a wide-angle lens.