Mayor Meeker and the kids
  • photo by Bob Geary
  • Mayor Meeker and the kids

I dropped in the other day at the Biltmore Hills Community Center to hear Mayor Charles Meeker talk about diversity with the kids. Officially, this was the kickoff for a summer reading program at the various community centers. The Biltmore Hill C.C. is in Southeast Raleigh south of the Beltline, and while the surrounding neighborhoods aren’t all African-American any more, everyone I saw at the center — the mayor excepted — was a person of color. Most of the children, I gather, had read “The Other Side,” a book by Jacqueline Woodson (illustrations by E. B. Lewis) about an African-American girl who lives on one side of a fence and a white girl who lives on the other side. Their families don’t want them getting together, for reasons the girls aren’t told, so — OK — rather than climb over the fence, the two of them just sit on it at the same time. That goes very well, and they talk, and get to be friends, and the families don’t say a word when eventually they take the next step and start playing together — on “The Other Side”.

Well, Charles read a bit from the book and then the kids peppered him with questions about diversity, a subject they’d obviously heard lots about of late and one they understand at the most profound level: Diversity is getting together with people who aren’t like you. Which in their case would mean kids from other neighborhoods where families are white. Biltmore Hills is not an upscale area, but it’s not a poor one either, and I doubt most of the kids had any sense that diversity in the Wake County schools has an economic edge to it as well as a racial one. Charles didn’t get into that, nor did he need to. He explained very well that diversity means mixing people who have different experiences, different points of view, even different language backgrounds. “You’ve all met kids who speak a different language?” he asked. Heads nodded. “That’s an example of diversity,” the mayor said. (I’m paraphrasing here, btw.) “Having diverse schools means you meet different people and you learn things from them that aren’t in the books — you get a lot better education that way than just going to a school where everybody’s the same.”

“What if, to get a diverse school, you have to go a long way on the bus?” one youngster asked. An excellent question, and one Charles was prepared for — not surprising, since his wife Anne McLaurin is on the Wake school board. “It’s better not to go TOO far,” the mayor said. “Best to limit busing distances and use magnet schools to attract diverse groups of students.”

How many of you attend magnet schools? the mayor asked. About half of the kids — at least a dozen out of about 30 — raised their hands.

Discussion then turned to whether the mayor is famous? (No.) Has he met Obama. (Yes … an answer that was met with much excitement. Charles met him during the ’08 campaign, and a second time when he went aboard Air Force One to welcome President Obama to Raleigh for a forum on health care.) Does the mayor have maids? (No … and this caused some disappointment. Charles explained that being mayor is a part-time job, and he and Anne take care of their house themselves. But then he dropped the news that he’s also met the First Lady — several kids asked me for paper after that so they could get the mayor’s autograph.)

Mayor Meeker caught some heat from conservatives recently when he opined that most of the new school board majority aren’t from around here and maybe don’t share our values as regards integration and diversity in the schools. This seemed a most unremarkable observation to me — four of the five in the board majority aren’t from around here, they’re NJ and Pennsylvania, which is where I’m from too — and since they obviously don’t share our values