DELMAR — A Bethlehem Central School Board member used a pejorative term during its Wednesday night meeting to explain the plot of a children’s book whose main character is a young Taiwanese girl.
Bethlehem administrators set aside time to recognize its members as part of New York State School Boards Association School Board Recognition Week on Oct. 20. Board members presented stacks of books of which they had chosen from a predetermined list that would later be donated in each of their names to various schools within the district.
Board members selected from a common theme of topics that included racism and cultural awareness from critically acclaimed books, some of which have been listed on the New York Times Best Sellers’ list. It was apparent through the evening that board members did not read some of the material. The reading levels ranged through each grade level; between kindergarten and 12th grade.
Jonathan Fishbein shared details from his books to be donated to Hamagrael Elementary. Among the six titles he chose was Joanna Ho’s “Eyes That Kiss in the Corners.” The best-selling author, who is Chinese and is vice principal of her San Francisco high school, shares the story about a young Taiwanese girl who notices her eyes look different from her friends.
“‘Eyes That Kiss in the Corners’ is about a young Oriental girl who notices that her eyes are different than her peers,” Fishbein explained, “and through her mother and other powerful women her life she learns to really appreciate that her eyes are different, that they are beautiful, and it brings her a great sense of beauty in honor of herself and self-empowerment. It’s a wonderful book. I hope every girl in the school gets to read it.”
The term Oriental derives from the Latin word meaning East, which is a reference to East Asia and its place within the British Empire. When used to identify people of Chinese, Japanese or Korean descent, it is widely considered a derogatory term. Once commonly used, school administrators and government officials have since phased it out from use in curriculums, documents and legislation for being offensive.
“Talking about how racism is not just an issue for just Black people, but how it is painful for our entire country and all of us, and how it affects not only the dysfunction of our democracy, but also it’s a moral crisis for all of us,” said Meredith Moriarty, as the board member described “The Sum of Us,” a book by New York Times Best Selling author Heather McGhee that will soon circulate from the high school library.
“It looks like a really powerful book,” she said. “I wrote all these [titles] down and I’m looking forward to reading them.”
The top-ranked district often rates among the best in the area. In the past year, its schools have topped lists accumulated by the Albany Business Review, Niche.com and U.S. News and World Report based on student performance and college preparedness.
The lack of diversity within Bethlehem Central, and the community in which it resides, is often criticized, too. Each of the seven school board members is White. That fact nearly mirrors the demographics of its community where more than 90 (91.4) percent of town residents are White according to a 2019 survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. More diversity is reflected in the district’s enrollment figures. Based on the state Education Department, 84 percent of its 4,336 students are White. Students who are Asian or Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander represent its next largest cohort at 7 percent.
No one appeared to correct Fishbein in Wednesday night’s meeting. Inquiries to board members are limited to a general email account assigned to the board. According to the district website, policy forbids individual members to speak on its behalf. Press inquiries are directed to the aforementioned email address or its communication’s department.
Bethlehem Central was approached but failed to return with a comment.