Renaming Monkeyland

By Susannah Wolf '81

In January Miquon students and staff gathered for an assembly to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At the assembly, groups shared what they have been learning from Dr. King’s work and the importance of speaking up and working together toward a more equitable and just world.

On the 25th of the month, Miquon students in first through sixth grade took on a conversation about a situation here at Miquon that is in direct conflict with our school philosophy, as well as the possibilities ahead of us to make things better. Like Dr. King, our students worked as advocates for justice as they took part in conversations about letting go of the use of the name Monkeyland at Miquon.

History of Monkeyland

Many years ago, the Harts Lane side of the woods along the upper creek was full of foliage, including vines children used for swinging. Students in those days decided that the area should be called Monkeyland, because they imagined themselves swinging as monkeys might, and the name stuck. We know the use of this name was never meant to be hurtful.

Now, the creek bank is no longer covered in vines and, while children still love playing there, there is no vine swinging. Instead, the name Monkeyland is confusing and offensive to many.

All around us we see examples of references to monkeys being made about African American people, conveying racist suggestions of African Americans being lesser people. Many know about the recent advertisement from H&M clothing company that similarly caused a lot of discomfort for many people by showing a photo of a black boy in a shirt that said “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.”

An Understanding at the Kid Level

In developmentally appropriate ways, our teachers brought this topic to their students, sharing both the ways the word monkey has been used to put others down, as well as the decision that Miquon will no longer use the name Monkeyland.

The conversations were reflective and thoughtful. Our children expressed dismay at the idea of anyone treating African Americans, or any people, as less valuable than others. All around the school, kids expressed a desire to make sure that we at Miquon were not contributing to a situation that hurts anyone.

As they worked through their classroom discussions, students clearly understood the pain that the word “monkey” brings when referring to anything other than an actual monkey.

The overall sense of the discussions is best summarized by the third grader who asked, “What took us so long to change it?”

Teaching Social Justice

When we think about the ways in which we teach our students about social justice, we strive to make lessons as relatable as possible for young children.

The renaming of Monkeyland is such relevant subject matter that is near and dear to the hearts of many Miquon students, because it is a place they know intimately as a part of our campus where many spend time every day — climbing, building, imagining. In many ways, there could be no better example for our Miquon children of how to stand up for something that’s wrong in their world.

This is just the beginning of the renaming work here at school. Recently, fifth and sixth graders facilitated a Good of the School assembly to determine a process by which we will rename the area. Later, older children will talk with Nursery and Kindergarten students to help them understand the process and to invite their participation in the work moving forward.

It is so important to us as Progressive educators that this work, much as the original naming of the location, be led by students. This space is theirs and their agency and ownership are essential in this process.

We look forward to sharing more about their process and the results of their naming deliberations soon.

10 Responses to Renaming Monkeyland

  1. Susan Wilder says:

    You guys are amazing. So much love to you.

  2. Thank you for posting this discussion. The lesson for me is that are always two sides to any story. It is always important to honor both sides when making change.

    “It is so important to us as Progressive educators that this work, much as the original naming of the location, be led by students. This space is theirs and their agency and ownership are essential in this process.”

    Alumni parent Diane Freaney, a grateful member of the Miquon community.

  3. Lila Bricklin says:

    When I was in preschool (circa 1960), Susanah McGuire was my teacher. I loved to climb on the jungle-gyms. She called me her little monkey. I never thought anything about it, just that it was a term of endearment. Of course, this was just before all the assassinations that occurred in the 1960s and the height of the civil rights movement. FYI, I am white and very impressed by what’s going on. The term Monkeyland wasn’t used during my tenure, but I did swing on a vine near the office, over the creek, when I was in the upper team. We evolve…

  4. Lisa Pomerantz says:

    I am eager to see how the kids solve this issue.

  5. Rory Erlich says:

    As a former Miquon student, I’m a little concerned and confused that the name “Monkeyland” is seen as offensive and unacceptable. Although I only attended the school a few years ago, my peers and I interpreted the name much as its original creators had intended, assuming that it alluded not specifically to the act of swinging on vines, but rather the general fact that the place was a miniature forest where one might engage in the sort of playful behavior associated with the animal (e.g. climbing trees, running/hopping around, etc.). At the time, I don’t remember anyone thinking that the name could be interpreted as a reference to African Americans, perhaps because the H&M incident had not yet occurred (an incident which to me seemed closer to an insensitive, thoughtless mistake by a specific clothing designer than something emblematic of a pervasive use of the word “monkey” as a racial slur throughout our society today). If kids are raising this as an issue now, then their voices should be heard. Otherwise I see no need for teachers to be imposing it upon them, especially when there are so many real, important social justice issues outside of Miquon that students, especially older students, could be learning about and discussing solutions to. To me, it seems more like an empty attempt at political correctness than a thoughtful, sincere effort at real change.

    Respectfully,
    Rory Erlich

  6. Catherine Sellmyer says:

    Congratulations on providing a meaningful, real-world problem-solving situation to increase sensitivity among all of us and our environment. Great lesson!!

  7. Susannah Wolf '81 says:

    It is absolutely true that we like to respond to children. However, we think it is just as important to respond to the adults in our community. In recent years, there have been several adults who came forward voicing the fact that they were hurt by the name, “Monkeyland.”

    While we know there was no ill intent when Monkeyland was named, you are right, times have changed. That said, we are also certain there were people who were troubled by the name since the beginning.

    We are glad to begin to tackle this issue together as a community, with the process of the renaming being fully led by the children here.

  8. Ajay Meswani ‘78 says:

    This is indeed an interesting situation and a teachable moment. When I first learned of this issue, I admit I had the same thoughts as Rory Ehrlich; that this was another example of political correctness gone awry. But after reading Susannah’s comments I have come to understand the issue more completely. While some are not personally offended by being compared to monkeys (I call my own son ‘monkey’ as an affectionate nickname), I am aware of the historical use of that term to lessen some people standing in our human community, which is most certainly hurtful. Kudos to Miquon for seizing the opportunity to help guide our young people in these matters using a real-life situation.

    Peace,
    Ajay M.

  9. 2000s Alumni says:

    Like Rory I’m slightly confused why monkeyland is being examined as a social issue… I remember when we used to bake “monkey bread” in science class – is monkey bread also offensive? I understand that there is a history of using the word monkey as a racial slur, but it doesn’t stand alone as bad word. The H&M incident is obviously an example of the word being actually offensive and I don’t think the same rules should apply to monkeyland.

    Should we let incidents like these change our long-time traditions?

    I also agree with Ajay that we should allow the name to be changed, if people are legitimately offended. At the end of the day, we want a welcoming environment for all our kids.

    However, I also think that people who are offended by the name should reflect on why they are offended and if it is really warranted or they are perceiving a problem where there is nothing wrong. I don’t think it’s a good idea to send kids out into the real world with a belief that they are entitled to take down anything that they consider offensive. It’s impossible to create a world where nothing is considered offensive by anyone, and I think it’s good to learn how to cope with tricky situations like these.

    I hope this becomes a great learning experience for the current Miquon kids, regardless of the outcome!

  10. 2000s Alumni says:

    Additionally, I think it would be good to create a new name with more intention behind it than “Monkey-land” had. It would be selfish of us alumni not to encourage new classes the opportunity to re-name it for themselves.

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