The camera pans the classroom. The first close-up shows a girl in a purple headscarf. She is 10 years old, seated at a desk beside other fourth-graders. The American flag hangs near a bulletin board in the background. The girl rises, describing “the lie” she knows.
“Muslims are terrorists,” she says into the camera.
“Black boys are bad,” another student says.
“Girls are not athletic,” says the next.
“Latinos can’t speak English well,” says another.
The message of “The Lie,” recorded in a Maryland elementary school, has resonated against the backdrop of a vitriolic presidential campaign. Its only voices are children. But in the video they are serious and earnest, identifying what demeans them.
“Chechens are a bad influence on others,” a girl says.
“Africans aren’t smart,” says a boy.
“Asians can’t play sports,” says another.
“All black people are thieves.”
“People from Mexico bring nothing good.”
The project at Stedwick Elementary School in Montgomery County started in the spring as a poetry assignment. It led to school performances in May and drew a wider audience as the children’s work was made into the video, posted in late September.
It has since garnered more than 55,000 views, picking up admirers in other states and countries. Students talk briefly about the things they have heard about themselves or other people of their religion, race, ethnicity or gender — and then speak about what they believe is true.
“I’m white, and I’m not racist,” one boy says. “I care for people who are of another race.”
“I have brown skin, but I’m the same as you,” a classmate says into the camera. “If you test me, I will succeed. And you underestimate me by the color of my skin? I’m tired of the hurtful words.”
“Latinos like me can speak English well,” says another. “They are learning, doing their best. Have you learned a second language? It’s hard. And yeah, people yell at Latinos because they don’t understand what they are saying.”
The students’ words are taken from longer poems they wrote in class, ultimately recorded and edited into a piece that runs for 2 minutes, 40 seconds. Most of the children were 10 years old when they spoke; some were 9.
“We thought it was such a great message, we wanted to capture it so we could keep the conversation going,” said Peggy Pastor, principal of Stedwick, a high-poverty school in Montgomery Village that is 45 percent Hispanic, 27 percent black, 14 percent white and 6 percent Asian. Children with backgrounds from 52 countries attend the school.
Pastor noted she had the fortune of knowing a filmmaker who agreed to do the video: her 34-year-old son, Kevin, who owns a small film production company in Upstate New York. He said he was moved by what he heard.
“You think of 9- and 10-year-olds as such innocent human beings, and for them to be saying these things, it’s heartbreaking,” he said.
The first spark for the project came at a Stedwick staff meeting, when teachers talked about being supportive to students who might be upset by negative remarks about minority groups as the presidential campaign flared, teacher Melinda Nwoye said.
“We knew our children were hearing things, and they had no way to process what they were hearing,” she said.
In her class, Nwoye had noticed several boys were talking about comments they had heard. When she asked the class whether they had ever heard anything negative said about them based on their race, ethnicity, gender or religion, students described their experiences. Classmates defended them, saying the put-downs just were not true.
The reaction was so strong, Nwoye brought the theme into a poetry project she was planning, using it as an outlet for student expression.
Alexandrine Bouhewa, parent of one of the students, said the experience helped her daughter, who had been told she was too pretty to be Togolese.
“She was happy to express herself, her feelings,” Bouhewa said. “People assume Africans are not beautiful.”
Another parent, Tania Ramos, said she was proud to hear of her son’s contribution — as were the family’s friends and relatives.
“With everything that is going on lately, they think it is a good message,” she said, “and it’s important for the kids to hear that no one is going to judge them, that they are going to be treated equally regardless of where they come from or how they speak.”
The children involved, in fourth grade when they were recorded in late May, are now in fifth grade. Parents consented to their children appearing in the video with the understanding their names would not otherwise be used, Pastor said.
Paul Geller, president of Montgomery’s countywide council of PTAs, viewed the video for the first time in mid-November. “I had goose bumps about 20 seconds in,” he said. “Every American should see that video.”
The children’s words so touched Capt. Dave Kennedy, in charge of equal employment opportunity with the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service , that he asked the school for permission to use it during the diversity training that all county firefighters must take.
“It was just powerful when 10-year-olds get the message and here we are adults, fighting and still trying to get the message,” he said, adding that firefighters and police officers have begun a mentoring program at the school.
Children ages 6 to 10 begin to understand stereotypes about racial groups, said John Diamond, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He said the project showed the power of education to help students express themselves and learn from other young people in a diverse classroom.
“I think it’s definitely the kind of work that is beneficial to young people, to reflect on their own identities and then seek their own truths,” Diamond said.
By the time the students were recorded for the video, they had memorized their work. They spoke straight into the camera, their words gathering force.
“What is the truth?” a black student says. “I know the truth. The truth that lies in my heart. The truth about black boys. I am black. This is me. The lie about black boys that I don’t believe in and I know is not the truth. Because the truth that is real is my truth.”
“Girls can definitely be athletic,” says another child.
“I am Asian. I play soccer,” says another.
Other children follow.
“I can be pretty and be Togolese,” a girl says. “Beautiful people come from all over the world.”
“I am Latino, and I could speak English,” says a boy.
“I’m not a thief,” says a student who is black. “I’ve never stolen anything.”
“I’m not a terrorist,” says the Muslim girl who starts the video. “So think again.”