A friend and I sat in astonishment and wonder. We had always known why we were happy that our children attend an integrated school, where they are exposed to kids who have had very different experiences and thus bring very different perspectives to school. But here before us was living proof.
Our children's high school -- Einstein, in Kensington -- had been chosen, along with 39 other middle and high schools in the area, to participate in a series of shows called "Students & Leaders." You may have seen ads for the series, sponsored by C-SPAN and Comcast, on buses or in the newspapers. To see the shows themselves, designed to foster conversations between high school students and national and local leaders, go to www.studentsandleaders.org.
Einstein's designated leader was the Rev. Al Sharpton, who is running for the Democratic nomination for president, and a friend and I wandered over to the auditorium at Einstein to see how it would go. At first, it was a disaster -- the kids and the cameras were all ready in a corner of the auditorium, but Sharpton had not been able to come.
What happened next was the kind of serendipity that makes you wish all the leaders could have just stayed home. The students were much more interesting.
With an air of making lemonade from lemons, Brian Lamb, president and chief executive of C-SPAN, interviewed the 27 high school students, mostly seniors pulled from a sociology class and a psychology class, for an hour. He kept trying to get them to focus on leadership and what national leader they most admired, but they kept straying into their life stories.
Not only did Lamb elicit stories of courage and persistence, but he also uncovered a culture of tolerance and sheer niceness that we are too often told doesn't exist among high school students.
Afterward, I told him I had occasionally gotten teary-eyed hearing the kids talk, and he said he had had a hard time not getting weepy himself.
A couple of times Lamb asked the students variations on the question, "Do people really get along here?" And the kids -- in the inimitable way of kids -- shrugged and said "yeah," as if the question itself was silly. But Lamb persisted, saying that he goes to many schools and doesn't much see this kind of getting along.
Several of the kids tried to explain.
"I've been to a lot of different schools, and this is the only one I've been to where there haven't been problems," said April Garner. "I guess it's because we live in the area we live in, where there are a lot of different people around -- there's not much to really fight about."
Gina Lawrence tried to articulate that further. "The reason we get along here is that everybody talks to everybody. Of course there are cliques in every high school, but there are always one or two people in one clique who talk to another person in another clique. Everybody talks to somebody, who talks to somebody who talks to somebody. . . . People are different -- we accept that. We don't judge them; we don't look down on them. That's why Einstein is a good place to be."
This small group of students was in many ways a microcosm of the diverse school, which is 26 percent African American, 13 percent Asian American, 32 percent Hispanic and 28 percent white -- with dozens of languages spoken. A few other high schools in Montgomery County and a few more in the rest of the country can match Einstein's demographics, but it can certainly make a claim to be among the most integrated high schools in America.
Some of the kids in the group, such as Lawrence, are originally from Montgomery County. Others came from all over the country and the world: Texas, Chicago, North Carolina, the Philippines, Russia, Iran, India, Bolivia, Cameroon.
Those born here epitomized American openness. Those who came epitomized the American dream. They spoke of the hard work it takes to achieve but also how much they appreciate the opportunities they would never have had if their families hadn't had the courage and fortitude to leave their homes and come to America.
"We have a lot more opportunities here," said Julia Liapidova, who explained that her mother had been an architect in Russia but struggled here in low-paying jobs until she learned English and got a job as a computer programmer. "First of all, it's a more diverse environment, and you can see why other people behave the way they do. In Russia you see only Russians, and you're not exposed to a lot of different ideas the way you are here."
Ghaseede Parsa -- who goes by Kelly -- said, "I am so grateful to my parents that they wanted to move here." Born in Iran, she moved with her family to Belgium when she was just 9 months old, then moved here when she was 8.
"I think back to being in Belgium, and it's a good country -- but some of the things you had to deal with over there, it's just not worth it. I remember going looking for houses, and they'd have signs on the doors that said 'No Foreigners.' That seems so closed-minded, especially compared to this country, where this school has so many different students and different cultures. People consider America the land of opportunity, and I actually feel it. I know if I lived in Belgium, I could never go to college this easily and have all these opportunities, and I am just really grateful."
Her thoughts were echoed by Danielle Damlabeau, from Cameroon, who said about the United States: "I'm speechless -- it's such a great country. There's so much opportunity, so many things you can do."
Many of the kids spoke with admiration -- even awe -- of their parents or other family members.
"My favorite leader is my grandmother. She has had me since I was born," said Derrick Harrigan. "She is always working; she never stops. She complains that she's tired, but she keeps going." He, too, is "tired all the time" and has become a "workaholic" because, he said, his grandmother "expects a lot of me. I will be the first generation to go to college."
Jeannine Marie Thorpe, when asked to name a leader she admired, said, "My parents, but particularly my father," who died when she was in fifth grade. He had had many jobs, including air conditioning salesman, automobile salesman and cabdriver, but -- most telling, to his daughter -- he had served as a point guard in the Marine Corps in Vietnam, "the guy who walked the point right there up in front watching for land mines and enemy troops, and he helped save some of the men in his company."
Lamb seemed especially intrigued by two best friends, Enoch Bevel and Benjamin Gutierrez. Both poised and charming, Bevel is the African American son of well-known American civil rights worker James Bevel, and Gutierrez is of Native American and Hispanic descent from a Texas military family. When asked which leader they most admired, Bevel said Mahatma Gandhi; Gutierrez said President George W. Bush.
When asked their views on the recent war in Iraq, Bevel said he didn't agree with the American actions because he thought the United States should have had the backing of the world community before invading another country; Gutierrez said he "totally agrees with everything [President Bush] has done."
And yet, Lamb asked, somewhat in astonishment, you two are friends. Absolutely, they replied.
"How do you do it?" Lamb asked.
"I just ignore some of his stuff," Bevel said, with perfect comic timing, eliciting amusement from the other kids. Upon further questioning, Bevel said that the two talked a lot, and that their differing views were a challenge to both, forcing them to think deeply about their beliefs and values.
Most of the students Lamb interviewed are headed off to colleges and universities: Pace, Temple, Morehouse, Spelman, University of Maryland at College Park, Bowie State, Benedict College, St. Mary's College, and -- by far the most popular -- "MC," or "Harvard on the Pike," as they said, patiently explaining to Lamb that that is what they call Montgomery College.
Some of them know they want to be teachers, nurses, psychologists, military officers, computer programmers or business people. Others have no idea what they want to do; they are still trying to figure that out.
But taken as a whole, they certainly seem on the right track. They are thoughtful. They are serious about serious things and funny about funny things. And I liked what Bernardine Annor said. She may not have focused on national issues enough to have really thought about whom she admires as a national leader, she said. But, she added, "I'm going to vote when I'm 18, I know that. . . . I'm not going to sit about and complain when I could do something about it."
All in all, this was a remarkable show. And I wasn't the only one who thought so. Payne Brown, a vice president of Comcast who was present to represent the cable television company, said: "I'm amazed at the diversity that is in this room. It's absolutely amazing. It says something about this country -- this school system, quite frankly. And it really [raises the] question of why do you think you can get along so easily and so much of the world outside of these walls have difficulty with the concept of difference?
"It's hopeful," Brown said. "It's very, very hopeful."
Homeroom appears every week in Montgomery Extra. Send questions, opinions and issues that you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, 51 Monroe St., Suite 500, Rockville, Md. 20850. The fax number is 301-279-5665. Or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. To see previous columns, go to www.washingtonpost.com, click on the Education page and look for Homeroom under Education Columnists.