In Room 222 a crowd of wide-eyed school teachers listened as John Kelly struggled to define "woofing," a street term used by many black youngsters.
"Woofing is a verbal threat that's not intended to be carried out . . . it's best if you just play along with it," the black Montgomery County school administrator said in his workshop on race relations.
"Oh, wow, I have lots of kids who do that all the time. I can play that game as good as anybody," a middle-aged woman teacher explained to a colleague.
"Just make sure you don't lose," her friend responded.
The classroom erupted in laughter.
The scene was Rockville's Richard Montgomery High School, where more than 2,500 county school employes gathered yesterday to participate in a two-day series of workshops on ethnicity in education.
It was the rage of the town as bus drivers and cooks, counselors and teachers swarmed to four different Rockville locations to learn anything and everything on a range of 91 topics from Zuni culture and Yiddish theater to Italian music and East European dancing.
The purpose of the $120,000 mini-convention is to increase employes' awareness of students' ethnic backgrounds. All 11,000 teachers and administrators are required to attend the convention, which replaces a mandatory course in black culture the county school board rescinded last January.
Minorities comprise roughly 15 percent of the county school enrollment.
"I'll bet none of you realize that there are 22 Arab countries in the world," said Sandra Sabbagh, an Indiana woman who came to discuss Arab in the country.
Depite several snafus, including inoperable toilets at Richard Montgomery and precious little parking space there was a festive atmosphere and apparently a great deal of learning going on.
"My God, those people were real artists, weren't they," said bus driver Thomas Greene as native American crafts teacher Willard Edmiston held up pieces of Indian jewelry. Guest lecturers, who received stipends of $150 a day plus lodging expenses, came from as far away as Washington state and Oklahoma to the human relations convention, one of the first of its kind contributions to America." "In the usual textbook on the Middle East there are roughly 30 pages, half of them devoted to Israel. The highlights of the rest are pictures of Bedouins, oil shieks and terrorists. Now that's not what Arabism is all about."
Teachers also gave examples of prejudice they said they had experienced at work. "I teach blind kids. Some of the kids in regular classes call them Coke bottle eyes," said a woman in an anti-semitism class. "Things like this creep into the workplace and you wonder where kids get it from."
"It's not just kids, though," said elementary school teacher Goldie Sotsky. "The teachers' union held its fall meetings during the last couple of years on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the high holiday for Jews. Now that's insensitive," she said.
In Kelly's class a number of listeners shook their heads when he asked them to define street terms such as "playing the dozens" and "shucking and jiving."
"You see it's important to understand where some of these black children are coming from," he said.
"When you know that shucking and jiving means adopting a subservient attitude and playing the dozens means talking about someone's mother, you can begin to grasp the differences some of these kids bring to the classroom.
"How about Mother's Day," he asks.
"That's in May," a listener responded.
"No, that's the day the welfare checks arrive. Kids use it all the time."
Marlene Hartstein, a Takoma Park junior high school reading teacher, smiled in bewilderment. "I've got 57 graduate credits from colleges but I was never prepared for some of the things I'm finding in the classroom. This is definitely worthwhile," she said.
Hallways buzzed with excitement as crowds peeped into rooms where instructors demonstrated East European and Israeli dancing. And there were tearful surprized greetings exchanged between long-forgotten peers.
"So often you get closed in in your own school and forget about the rest of the system," said Magruder High School teacher Carlisle Wildeman. "I've seen people today I haven't seen in years." Nearby a classroom teacher grabbed the arm of a friend and laughed, "Come, Millie. Let's go take in a little Italian art."
The convention was organized by the schools' Human Relations Department. "I'm absolutely delighted. I've never seen so many smiles in my life," said department head Wilma Fairley.
There was seriousness as well. Edward Leavy, a speaker representing the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, exhorted teachers to confront parents whose children make bigoted remarks in class.
"It's absolutely incumbent upon you to do so, otherwise bigotry and prejudice will persist. If someone says, 'I'd have more money if Jews didn't control the banks' you must have the courage to set that person's children straight."
After Leary's impassioned talk on anti-Semmitism, teacher Goldie Sotsky said, "Well, maybe I'll have the courage to do just that. That's why I came here."