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Crosscurrents photo

Students participating in the Normandy Crosscurrents program recently held a discussion at the Post-Dispatch facilitated by metro columnist Tony Messenger. The students and their teachers are: Mohammad Rayan (on the floor); front row, left to right: Nour Alhiyari, Rosana Salem, Alya Elsayed, Anna Jones, Lorren Thomas; second row, from left: Inda Schaenen, Zulkarnejn Kunic, Christina Maury, Janet DePasquale, Najma Omar, Messenger, Anthony Cotton, Osman Noueiry, Janelle Griffin, Trinity Singleton.

School is like a box of colored pencils.

Or it should be, anyway.

That’s what Mohammad Rayan believes.

Mohammad, 14, is the son of a cab driver. He’s a Pakistani-American who attends Al-Salam Day School, a private, Islamic school in Ballwin.

On a recent Friday, Mohammad and some of his classmates discussed their experience living and attending school in St. Louis with students from two other schools, Normandy Middle School and Kirkwood High School.

The students were participating in a program called Normandy Crosscurrents started by language arts teacher Inda Schaenen. The program started at a difficult time for students in the Normandy Schools Collaborative. The district was under state control after losing accreditation. Students were dealing with the daily trauma of the post-Ferguson reality in north St. Louis County, with the nation’s attention focused on their communities. As many Normandy students fled the district when the transfer window was open, Schaenen and others were trying to help the students who stayed behind learn from the real-life change happening to them and the greater St. Louis region.

In the past couple of years, they’ve met with students from schools around the region and learned from each other. On this day, I facilitated such a discussion, and Mohammad’s description fit the group well.

They were black and white. Muslim and Christian. Liberal and conservative. Quiet and chatty.

At the core of our discussion is a dilemma often facing the larger community:

Are people better off living in strong, homogeneous communities where they feel safe and comfortable, or would our experiences be better if we were less divided by color, race and economic class?

It depends, Mohammad says.

The eighth-grader started his education in St. Louis at a public school in his neighborhood. He felt different, he said. Left out. He lacked confidence. That changed when his parents sent him to Al-Salam. There was value, he said, in being around other Muslim children.

Najma Omar, 16, offers a different perspective.

She, too, is the Muslim child of a cab driver, but the culture shock of being the only Muslim and one of only two black students at her elementary school helped her find her way. Now she’s the incoming senior class president at Kirkwood High School.

“I’ve had no choice but to stand up for myself,” Najma says. “Many of our schools fail to expose us to different perspectives. If I physically don’t know how to sit next to somebody who has lived a completely different life than me, then I will fail.”

Such failure is too common in today’s divided America.

Our social media feeds are full of video snippets of daily interactions between people of different backgrounds who can’t seem to respect America’s tradition as a melting pot of different cultures.

“It doesn’t seem that we’re melting very nicely,” said Alya Elsayed, 14, an eighth-grader at Al-Salam.

Through the Crosscurrents program, Trinity Singleton has realized she has more in common with her new friends at Kirkwood High School than with many of her classmates and neighbors.

Fear, she says, gets in the way of learning: “Fear can stop your whole growth in life.”

St. Louis often appears near the top of the list of the most segregated cities in America, falling just behind Chicago, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, and that division — mostly by race — gets in the way of progress, whether it’s improving schools such as Normandy, or unifying the city and county.

Fear is often the motivating factor. Fear of violence. Fear of difference. Fear of the unknown.

A dozen St. Louis students from different backgrounds don’t agree on all the solutions. But they find common ground in sharing their lived experiences so they can learn from each other. It’s a path forward for a segregated Midwestern city situated in the middle of a divided country.

“I feel that people forget that America was built on immigration,” Alya said. “Look around this room. This is what America looks like.”

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Tony Messenger is the metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.