Through the Eyes of a Student

Seeing Beyond the Stereotype

by Hope McSherry

Hope McSherry, a seventh grader at the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), a K-8 school in Edgecomb, Maine, wrote the following essay as part of an application to her school for a grant to Operations Breaking Stereotypes.

Imagine yourself on the subway in New York City. You stand as the train comes to a stop. The doors open, and a teenager steps in. He grips the handle next to yours. Instinctively, your hold on the yellow handle tightens and your eyebrows raise as you notice his dark skin, leather jacket, gauged earrings, and spiked tattoos. The train slows again, and you both hop off. You see that you are both going to the same place: an event hosted by the non-profit organization Operation Breaking Stereotypes. At the event you write with and hear this teen’s story. As you become friends with him, you realize that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover — or a person by their race, gender, sexuality, or ethnicity.

Connie and Camden Carter are the mother-daughter power team that founded Operation Breaking Stereotypes (OBS). One teaching in Maine while the other taught in New York, they realized that their students had some of the same experiences even though they lived in completely different environments.

The Carters founded OBS in 2001 to encourage students from Maine, Boston, and New York to step out of their comfort zones and see the similarities in each other’s experiences, which most students never thought was possible. When high school students are engaged in group activities and writing exercises, they learn to bond with each other and strive to see an individual’s personality behind his or her appearance.

OBS has partnered with ten to fifteen high schools from New York to Bar Harbor. Teens connect with OBS in ninth grade and most continue to engage in group events up to twelfth grade. Students from these schools are matched with a temporary foster family and stay with them for up to five days. By doing this, teenagers fully experience the culture and lifestyle of the place they stay in and the people they live with. Students are also able to interact with their foster families on a personal level.

“The kids from Brooklyn were a lot like the kids from Maine; they didn’t look like gang members,” one student from Maine said after having what would have been an impossible opportunity without the support of OBS.

Before getting to visit interesting places like “The Pine Tree State” or “The Big Apple,” some students involved with OBS’s trips have concerns about what their experience might turn out to be. One group of teenagers from the Bronx were afraid to even step off the bus in Maine, because they thought they would come face to face with a hungry bear. Another group, visiting New York, thought they heard gunshots while having a picnic in the park, when the noise was really just fireworks. These are just two reasons why students are always pleasantly surprised with OBS’s activities, but it also shows that people don’t just have stereotypes about people. Even preconceived notions about places can be thrown into the mix of problems OBS strives to help teens see beyond.

OBS would use a grant from CTL to help pay for bus rides to different states, visits to tourist attractions, and supplies for group activities so that students are able to share their stories with the group and hear similar ones, before they assume other teens are something that they aren’t. OBS also would like to use a grant to partner with more schools so that their message can spread across New England and maybe eventually even nation-wide.

As Connie Carter said to me, “Everybody has a story.” Operation Breaking Stereotypes enables students to share their stories, so that seemingly harmless yet hurtful stereotypes can stop being spread. After all, if you immediately judge a book by its cover, you will never know what stories it has inside.