By Patrick Markey
It must have seemed like a flashback to their childhoods growing up in Northern Ireland under the stern tutelage of the Christian Brothers, with their focus on academics and their drive for educational success.
But when Northern Ireland’s new minister of education, Martin McGuinness, and Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams took a stroll around Rice High School in Harlem on Thursday, it was a very different world: baseball scores took the place of hurling and the internet shoved aside battered textbooks as the tool for studying European history.
For McGuinness, who was visiting the United States for the first time since being appointed to his new post, it was a chance to show a keen interest in education, and learn a few lessons to take home to Belfast. Minister McGuinness performed dutifully.
Standing over two pupils working at computer terminals, his hands gently placed on their shoulders, McGuinness pressed the children about what they were studying. He seemed particularly impressed by the new technology.
"Well, it’s completely different," McGuinness said when asked what he could learn from the Harlem school. "They know more about computers. It’s incredible what’s happened over the last couple of years."
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McGuinness said he also hoped he could learn more from other education systems about dyslexia and other special education needs for students in disadvantaged areas. Rice offered some salient lessons.
The only Christian Brothers school in Harlem, Rice High School sends most of its graduates to college. More than 80 percent of the pupils come from single-parent families, but the school has a 90 percent success rate for getting its students into colleges, administrators said.
The school has predominantly black and Hispanic students who study there, which presented an opportunity for the Sinn Féin leaders to cast themselves as similarly disadvantaged, and to offer a few lessons in discrimination.
Talking to a mixture of students and educators around a wooden table, Adams and McGuinness sought to draw comparisons between their own impoverished childhoods and those of the Harlem children.
"In my experience, we’re all the same, from Harlem to the Falls Road, the Shankill, India. Under the skin we’re all the same," Adams said.
The students listened as McGuinness explained the peace process and the Good Friday agreement. Most of them appeared primed on their guests and knew at least enough to draw comparisons between the African-American struggle for civil rights and the similar movement in Northern Ireland.
"We can relate in Harlem about social discrimination," said Onyx Echavarria, an 18-year-old senior at the school. "There are things that are not right or stop us from properly excelling," he said.