For some, Riceville was simply a place to grow up, go to school, and then escape. When those lucky enough to leave did, the other residents buckled down, becoming increasingly insular and unshakable, narrowing their eyes at any deviation from the norm. As a result, Riceville has never seen growth. Its population, according to a recent census, stands at 806, smaller than when Elliott was a child.
Many of Elliott’s male classmates dropped out of school to work the family farm. After graduating high school, she left for college, returning to teach at Riceville Elementary School in 1964. Just four years later, in Classroom No. 10, Elliott did something that shocked her hometown, the country, and eventually the world.
Stephen G. Bloom’s new book, Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes: A Cautionary Tale of Racism and Brutality, traces Elliott’s path from small-town teacher to accidental celebrity. She became a national phenomenon in 1968 following her appearance on The Tonight Show where she explained her experiment to Johnny Carson. Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she divided her classroom into groups: blue-eyed students and brown-eyed students. She began by informing the brown-eyed children that their blue-eyed classmates were inferior: dirty, dishonest, slow-witted, and lazy. She suggested they were inherently violent.
Elliott was, of course, conducting an immersive experiment in discrimination, showing her third-grade class what it felt like to be different. “I consider this exercise an injection of the live virus of racism,” Elliott said during the filming of a documentary about her teaching.
If you’ve been through this exercise, the next time you see racist behaviors, sexist behaviors, homophobic behaviors, ethnocentric behaviors, ageist behaviors, maybe you will say to yourself, “Wait a minute. I had that [and] I’m never going to allow that to happen in my presence again without responding to it negatively.”
The “experiment” lasted just two days. On day one, the brown-eyed students received endless praise and extended recess breaks; on day two, the blue-eyed children had their turn. The backlash was immediate. Many believed Elliott had scarred these poor white children for life. Elliott was more concerned about the damage inflicted on Black children every day. “That’s different,” said a woman with whom she was arguing. “They’re used to it. They can take it.”
Riceville hated the attention, and still does. When Bloom began researching Jane Elliott, the townsfolk instantly shunned him:
Word travels fast in small towns, and when I called on retired teachers in Riceville, a half dozen flatly refused to talk about Elliott. Just about everyone I approached ran the other way. Some wouldn’t answer their phones. When I knocked on doors, no one welcomed me. The few who consented to meet did their best to evade my questions. They looked at the floor or straight through me. Several heard me out, then quietly asked me to leave.
The fallout from Elliott’s classroom experiment extended to her own children, who were beaten and harassed. Her parents’ restaurant struggled to retain customers. Rumors circulated that her husband, Darald, was not the children’s biological father. “The whispers,” Bloom said, “multiplied and morphed.” The family dog was poisoned.
Elliott was undeterred. The town’s reaction convinced her that she was on the right track — she was making discrimination painfully visible for everyone. Riceville saw her as a disgrace. “Her bragging had been one thing,” Bloom said, assuming the collective voice of the town, “but her waxing about Blacks and racism and why our children needed a lesson to eradicate bigotry smeared not just Riceville, but the whole state of Iowa.” He recalls a wave of paranoia splashing over the residents he interviewed, some of whom feared that the experiment might herald an invasion of Riceville by people of color. As one resident put it, “Our schools, churches, neighborhoods, and businesses would be overrun with them. Negroes would be our neighbors, they’d be working side by side us on our farms, they’d marry our children. [Elliott] is promoting the end of white civilization as we know it.”
In 1920, Sinclair Lewis depicted a small rural community in Minnesota for his novel Main Street. Gopher Prairie was a cliquey little hole in the wall where people dreamed small, grew up and married their neighbors, kept their noses down and their goals within easy reach. But Gopher Prairie was really Lewis’s hometown of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, in disguise — a living template for the problems he saw flourishing like bacteria in monochromatic rural communities. Main Street’s protagonist, Carol Kennicott, wants to revitalize Gopher Prairie through a regimen of tree-planting, beautification, and social engagement. But she faces resistance from townsfolk who find change threatening. Kennicott’s fictional struggles foreshadow Elliott’s real-life battles.
Elliott wasn’t the first teacher to challenge Riceville. Paul Richer taught at the junior high 20 years before her. A young idealist, Richer angered the town by teaching “scummy” books like The Catcher in the Rye. The breaking point came when he introduced his students to the work of Karl Marx. A local minister stormed into the classroom, comparing Richer, a Jew, to the antichrist. When Richer was fired, he labeled Riceville “Main Street.” He accused Riceville’s residents of having “an intense respect for yesterday, a complete disdain for today, and a rigid denial for tomorrow.” Bloom says the most obvious difference between Richer and his pedagogical successor was their gender:
Richer was viewed as assured and cocky; in Elliott, such characteristics were seen as arrogant and bitchy. Surely that double standard was partially in play in the reaction Richer got in Riceville compared to what was to befall Elliott. Another difference between the two teachers was that Richer wasn’t married. He had no children. When locals in Riceville arose in fury against Richer, there was no community backlash directed at his family members, just at Richer. This was not to be the case for Elliott.
Despite the significant backlash, Elliott also received praise. In 1971, William Peters and Charlie Cobb wrote A Class Divided, training teachers to complete Elliott’s exercise with their own students. Peters and Cobb were uncritical, commending Elliott while they readied a generation of educators to follow in her footsteps. In Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes, Bloom too risks falling short by occasionally getting sucked into the vortex of Elliott’s oversized personality, focusing more on the teacher than on her goal of confronting racism. But questions remain: Was that her goal? Or was it her ticket to fame?
Elliott appeared on Oprah in 1992 as an early proponent of diversity and inclusion training. This was where her message fell apart. In her all-white third-grade classroom, she could easily play the authority on race relations. However, her cultural experience was as limited as her students’. “Elliott’s only connection with Black Americans,” Bloom said, “had been through their portrayal in popular culture; for Elliott that meant mostly on radio and particularly on Amos ‘n’ Andy, a comedy show in which Black people were portrayed as swindlers and rubes.” On Oprah, when Elliott asked Black audience members how they felt about important social issues, she didn’t stop talking long enough to hear their answers. In Elliott’s opinion, she was the expert.
Elliott’s former students remember a similar personality, and Bloom succeeds when he lets them do the talking. A few described lingering nightmares from their time with her. “She’d punish kids,” one said. “She had this way about her that was intimidating. None of us wanted to be in [her] class.” Peace, love, and understanding are difficult notions when espoused by an educator whose principal called her “a good mate for Hitler.” Elliott’s difficult personality and local beefs aside, her work remains influential. Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes visits the unlikely place where seeds of racial reconciliation might have pierced the unyielding soil of consciousness.
Jason M. Thornberry’s work appears in The Broadkill Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Soundings East, and elsewhere. Jason taught creative writing at Seattle Pacific University. He lives in Seattle.