AMERICA used to be called a melting pot. Today some people call it a salad bowl. Different ethnic and racial groups retain their own distinct identities when tossed together, but if the salad dressing works its magic as it should, the taste of the whole is better than the sum of its parts.
How do you get the magic to work in inner-city neighborhoods? At Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, D.C., students and teachers are trying - not with 100 percent success, but enough to assure them that they are on the right track.
Taken as a whole, Washington's school population is overwhelmingly black, but at Bell the dominant language heard in the corridors is Spanish. Half of the 550 students are Hispanic and the rest are a rich cocktail of black, yellow, and brown - African, Caribbean, Asian, and African-American.
Luis Pozo, from El Salvador, is a survivor of that country's bloody civil war. His oldest brother was killed by contras; some of his friends are still in jail. Nineteen years old, he lives with his older brother; his parents remain in El Salvador. To support himself, he works six and a half hours every day as a cleaner at a naval hospital.
But Luis has thrown himself zestfully into Bell's multicultural atmosphere. He is taking Russian - "because I like challenges." His best friend is a Nicaraguan; he's also made friends with Chinese, Nigerians, and other Africans.
"You learn the culture, the customs of these people, and you learn something new, it's like some ingredient that you can add to your culture, something that can make my culture better," he says. The American dream is alive and well with Luis: He wants to go on to college and become a mechanical engineer.
ADRIAN KIRK, an African-American born in Washington, has mastered Spanish and uses it to teach two groups of students - African-Americans who want to learn Spanish, and Hispanics long deprived of education who need academic skills. The native Spanish speakers help African-Americans with their language, and the African-Americans help the Latin-Americans with learning skills - mathematic concepts, how to follow a schedule, how to do homework.