Penny Zeplowitz: Changing perceptions can change your life - The Buffalo News

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Penny Zeplowitz: Changing perceptions can change your life

Recently I noticed a rash of attention-getting headlines in the newspaper and on the Internet about attacks on various ethnic, racial, religious and political groups. Whether it’s a hate crime in Florida, controversial immigration laws or voter ID legislation targeting various groups, such issues are now being highlighted on both the national and local stage.

Prejudice has always been around, but it seems that in today’s culture more and more people are worried about others who may not look, sound, think or act like they do.

I thought about that recently when an old friend and I went back to visit Laurelton. It’s an office building now, but when we first entered its doors in kindergarten, it was a very special elementary school in our fast-growing Rochester suburb.

We all loved Laurelton because what was most noteworthy about it were the warm, caring relationships that had developed between its small faculty, its students and their parents, creating an atmosphere much more conducive to learning than in many suburban schools today.

Because our school district was a new and growing one, when my friends and I were ready to attend high school, the school that would eventually serve the district’s three elementary schools was still in the blueprint stage. After much discussion, a controversial decision was made to send the students from all three elementary schools to Rochester’s largest city high school, a three-story building taking up an entire city block with a population of more than 2,000 students.

The first day we entered our new school we were really overwhelmed by its large physical size and by its sheer number of students who were of different races, religions, cultures and came from varying economic circumstances. They were certainly unlike our classmates from Laurelton, who mainly all had similar backgrounds and lived in the same type of neighborhoods on pretty, tree-lined streets.

At first we socialized only with our friends from Laurelton and the two other suburban schools. But as time went by, we began realizing that we were sometimes agreeing with the different views of the many other students in our classrooms.

I found I enjoyed talking to those whose backgrounds, race, cultures and religions were different from my own and hearing their opinions on various issues. I relished arguing with others who had opposing political opinions, and occasionally changed my own views after listening to theirs.

As we sat together in our classrooms during those four years, cheered our basketball team to victory and attended after-game parties, I began to realize that many of us had changed. Students who had intimidated us at first by their very differences had become our new friends.

Over time, we had begun to look beyond the color of people’s skin, to see behind differing religious or political views, to disregard whether their families were rich or poor and to really look at the person who was underneath before we decided whether or not we liked someone.

It was a valuable lesson and one I have never forgotten.

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