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All lemons are not alike

Everyone can describe lemons. But getting to know particular lemons taught kids in Maine how to appreciate diversity.

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We can all describe lemons: yellow, round, shiny, soft, pungent, acidic, sour. They grow on trees. They're fruit. They make you pucker. With enough sugar added, they're good for lemonade. Someone might even note that they're put in drinking water in fancy restaurants.

But could you pick out your lemon from a batch of 15? We may understand lemons as a species perfectly without knowing a particular lemon well. Or vice versa.

Lemons were on the menu when Thom Harnett, Maine's assistant attorney general for civil rights, visited the school of which I'm principal. In one of three different class sessions, he gave each fourth- and fifth-grader a lemon. "Get to know your lemon," he said. "Be one with your lemon."

The class had already brainstormed the list of those generic lemon qualities, but getting familiar with a particular lemon required different eyes. And when Mr. Harnett collected all the lemons in a box, we had to think hard to remember what exactly distinguished "my" lemon from "your" lemon. How well had we gotten acquainted?

Then came the acid test: "Find your lemon in the box."

For a few brief moments, there was a scrum. However, everyone successfully retrieved his or her personal lemon. All lemons do not look alike.

Then a very different list of qualities appeared on the blackboard, as the class brainstormed words for the now-unique lemons.

First of all, the yellow fruit became "my lemon." Maybe it had a little "thingy" on top, a blemish near the middle, a brown spot, a bump, even a name. "Naming helps," said Jen. So we had Bob and Chester Lemon. Now it's personal.

Harnett's exercise was a perfect metaphor for how we make snap judgments and definitions versus intimate knowing and deeper understanding.

In fact, he spends a lot of time in court using the Maine civil rights statute to correct the effects of inappropriate or illegal judgments based on gender, religion, race, language, or national origin. And he spends a lot of time in schools helping kids make appropriate judgments based on character and respect. His visit to us was naturally aligned with Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

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