Elliott," Steven yelled as he slung his books on his desk. Why'd they shoot that King? Would you like to find out?
A chorus of "Yeahs" went up, and so began one of the most astonishing exercises ever conducted in an American classroom. Now, almost four decades later, Elliott's experiment still matters—to the grown children with whom she experimented, to the people of Riceville, populationwho all but ran her out of town, and to thousands of people around the world who have also participated in an exercise based on the experiment. She prefers the term "exercise.
Washington, Maria Montessori and 23 others. Yet what Elliott did continues to stir controversy.
One scholar asserts that it is "Orwellian" and teaches whites "self-contempt. That spring morning 37 years ago, the blue-eyed children were set apart from the children with brown or green eyes. Elliott pulled out green construction paper armbands and asked each of the blue-eyed kids to wear one.
She knew that the children weren't going to buy her pitch unless she came up with a reason, and the more scientific to these Space Age children of the s, the better. Melanin, she said, is what causes intelligence. The more melanin, the darker the person's eyes—and the smarter the person. You give them something nice and they just wreck it. Elliott rattled off the rules for the day, saying blue-eyed kids had to use paper cups if they drank from the water fountain.
Everyone looked at Mrs. As the morning wore on, brown-eyed kids berated their blue-eyed classmates. Elliott," a brown-eyed student said as a blue-eyed student got an arithmetic problem wrong. Elliott, how come you're the teacher if you've got blue eyes? Before she could answer, another boy piped up: Jane elliott blue eyed brown eyed experiment lunchtime, Elliott hurried to the teachers' lounge.
She described to her colleagues what she'd done, remarking how several of her slower kids with brown eyes had transformed themselves into confident leaders of the class. Withdrawn brown-eyed kids were suddenly outgoing, some beaming with the widest smiles she had ever seen on them.
She asked the other teachers what they were doing to bring news of the King assassination into their classrooms. The answer, in a word, was nothing.
Back in the classroom, Elliott's experiment had taken on a life of its own. A smart blue-eyed girl who had never had problems with multiplication tables started making mistakes. At recess, three brown-eyed girls ganged up on her.
The blue-eyed girl apologized. On Monday, Elliott reversed the exercise, and the brown-eyed kids were told how shifty, dumb and lazy they were. Later, it would occur to Elliott that the blueys were much less nasty than the brown-eyed kids had been, perhaps because the blue-eyed kids had felt the sting of being ostracized and didn't want to inflict it on their former tormentors.
When the exercise ended, some of the kids hugged, some cried. Elliott reminded them that the reason for the lesson was the King assassination, and she asked them to write down what they had learned. Typical of their responses was that of Debbie Hughes, who reported that "the people in Mrs.
Elliott's room who had brown eyes got to discriminate against the people who had blue eyes. I have brown eyes. I felt like hitting them if I wanted to.
I got to have five minutes extra of recess. That's what it feels like when you're discriminated against. Elliott shared the essays with her mother, who showed them to the editor of the weekly Riceville Recorder. He printed them under the headline "How Discrimination Feels.
That might have been the end of it, but a month later, Elliott says, Johnny Carson called her. On the "Tonight Show" Carson broke the ice by spoofing Elliott's rural roots. She chatted about the experiment, and before she knew it was whisked off the stage. Hundreds of viewers wrote letters saying Elliott's work appalled them. It's cruel to white children and will cause them great psychological damage.
Elliott replied, "Why are we so worried about the fragile egos of white children who experience a couple of hours of made-up racism one day when blacks experience real racism every day of their lives? The people of riceville did not exactly welcome Elliott home from New York with a hayride. Looking back, I think part of the problem was that, Jane elliott blue eyed brown eyed experiment the residents of other small midwestern towns I've covered, many in Riceville felt that calling attention to oneself was poor manners, and that Elliott had shone a bright light not just on herself but on Riceville; people all over the United States would think Riceville was full of bigots.
Some residents were furious.
When Elliott walked into the teachers' lounge the next Monday, several teachers got up and walked out. When she went downtown to do errands, she heard whispers. She and her husband, Darald Elliott, then a grocer, have four children, and they, too, felt a backlash. Their year-old daughter, Mary, came home from school one day in tears, sobbing that her sixth-grade classmates had surrounded her in the school hallway and taunted her by saying her mother would soon be sleeping with black men.
Brian, the Elliotts' oldest son, got beaten up at school, and Jane called the ringleader's. When Sarah, the Elliotts' oldest daughter, went to the girls' bathroom in junior high, she came out of a stall to see a message scrawled in red lipstick on the mirror: Elliott is nothing if not stubborn. She would conduct the exercise for the nine more years she taught the third grade, and the next eight years she taught seventh and eighth graders before giving up teaching in Riceville, inlargely to conduct the eye-color exercise for groups outside the school.
ABC broadcast a documentary about her work. Department of Education and the Postal Service. She has spoken at more Jane elliott blue eyed brown eyed experiment colleges and universities. She has appeared on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" five times. The fourth of five children, Elliott was born on her family's farm in Riceville inand was delivered by her Irish-American father himself. She was 10 before the farmhouse had running water and electricity. She attended a oneroom rural schoolhouse. Today, at 72, Elliott, who has short white hair, a penetrating gaze and no-nonsense demeanor, shows no signs of slowing.
She and Darald split their time between a converted schoolhouse in Osage, Iowa, a town 18 miles from Riceville, and a home near Riverside, California. Elliott's friends and family say she's tenacious, and has always had a reformer's zeal. Vision and tenacity may get results, but they don't always endear a person to her neighbors.