I cannot describe what a pleasure it was to share an afternoon in February – Black History Month – with Ms. Thompson’s second-grade students at Washington Elementary School. I was one of the many adults who came to read in designated classrooms.

I chose the book “Amazing Grace” from a collection of pre-selected books. It’s a wonderful story, illustrated with beautiful, realistic paintings.

The book encourages children to pursue their goals in spite of what others say to discourage them. Grace, the main character, is an African-American girl who wants to play the role of Peter Pan in a school play. One student tells her that she can’t be Peter Pan because she’s not a boy. Another tells her that she can’t be Peter Pan because she’s not white. You can read the book to find out how it ends.

Ms. Thompson’s students told me that this was one of their favorite stories. They were attentive to my reading of the book as though it was new. They were absolutely fantastic. Their comments and insights were amazing. I was truly enlightened.

When we discussed jobs that girls could pursue that were socially acceptable now, one of the boys pointed out that boys could be nurses, too. His comment was absolutely on target. The roles that both men and women play do change.

Before reading “Amazing Grace,” I read them a story I had written about my prejudgment of a Caucasian (a new word for them) man that I thought was hesitant to sit next to me at a concert because I am black. The story ends with the man, a friend and me chatting. The students grasped everything in the story as it related to people interacting and sometimes being mistaken about others. At the end of our discussion, I was asked if the story was true.

“Yes, “I replied. “It was true.”

When the student first gathered on the floor in front of me for the readings, one student asked, “Are you African American?” The question made me smile. I said that I was and then gave a brief and probably unnecessary list of previous (acceptable) terms used for black people.

But the student’s question made me wonder: What do racial identities mean to the young?

Thanks to Ms. Thompson’s students for confirming that young people are awesome.

Peggy Tarr

Peggy Tarr has been a columnist for the Evanston RoundTable since its founding in 1998. Born in Bruce Springsteen's hometown of Freehold, New Jersey, she graduated from Rutgers University with a degree...