When Cheryl “Cherie” Bussert and her husband had their third child in 1981, they were living in Melrose Park. Needing a house with more room, they intentionally chose the north side of Maywood because “we got a great home for an affordable price and Maywood’s diversity was something we welcomed.”
She has had no regrets about that decision 34 years later.
“I am so happy and proud of the way my kids turned out,” she said, “and the way they are tolerant adults and don’t judge people. The environment you grow up in does have an impact on how you turn out as an adult.”
She also feels good about her long association with Forest Park: eight years as a student at St. John Lutheran School and 19 years as a teacher at Forest Park Middle School.
Bussert’s immersion in multicultural settings began as a child growing up on the south side of Maywood. When her parents moved to Itasca in 1967, the neighborhood she lived in was about half black, half white.
“All the streets were lined with elms,” she recalled. “We played after dark; we ran after the mosquito abatement truck; the ice cream man came by; we played softball in the street, burned our leaves in the gutters and came in after dark.”
Her parents moved out to Itasca, not because of the diversity, but because of incidents that happened to Bussert on the corner where the school bus dropped her off.
“It was after several incidents where I was invited into someone’s car that they decided they needed to leave,” she explained. “Moving was driven by incidents that were directly related to my family.”
Fast forward to 1981 when the Busserts decided to move to North Maywood which she refers to as “Lutherwood” — or as some call it, “the Lutheran ghetto” — because so many professors from Concordia, teachers at Walther and both pastors from St. Paul Lutheran Church in Melrose Park lived there at the time.
Most of the white flight and racial turnover had happened by then.
“We chose that part of Maywood,” she said. “We chose diversity for our kids. I think that at one time our particular little pocket of Maywood was one-third black, one-third Hispanic and one-third white.”
There is more crime in Lutherwood than in Itasca, she acknowledged. Their car and two bicycles were stolen, someone walked into their garage and carried off a case of oil, and a shooting occurred next door. But her children growing up had an experience similar to the one she had as a child.
“My kids played ‘ghosts in the graveyard’ and came in after dark like I did,” she said.
Bussert’s oldest daughter, Jamie, now an adult, agreed that her parents’ decision to raise them in the midst of diversity was good for her.
“We were submerged in a very diverse arena. It wasn’t something we even thought about as kids. As I got older, I had boyfriends who were white and dated a guy who was black. Growing up in a loving environment and private schools gave us an appreciation for all people. This is what has carried me through to the person I am today.”
Adam, the youngest of the three Bussert children, said, “I would say that growing up, I didn’t really realize or understand that we grew up in a ‘diverse setting.’ I didn’t realize until going to college at Marquette University that the majority of the United States population was white. Living in a diverse area is very important to me as I think about having kids in the future. I think so much of the understanding and appreciation of different races, religions, etc. is rooted in where we grew up and who our friends were, as well as the values we were taught by our parents. It’s much easier for people to hate or stereotype black, Muslim, gay, disabled people when they don’t know any personally. As a gay man myself, this is very easy to appreciate.”
Claire, the middle child, said, “As an adult, I have had the chance to teach in three different schools, all with different levels of diversity. My parent’s acceptance of diversity has allowed me to adopt some of the same principles in the way I deal with co-workers or school families. I have now lived outside of Maywood for more years than I lived in Maywood, but we were taught lifelong lessons during that time and I am grateful to have had that experience.
Bussert was also able to put her experience of diversity in Maywood to good use as a teacher in District 91 as the demographics of the village and its schools were changing (See sidebar).
To a large extent, her growing up in a multicultural setting had made her color blind.
“When I taught at St. Paul Lutheran School in Melrose Park [before coming to D91], people would ask how many white kids and how many black kids I had in my classroom. I could honestly answer, ‘I don’t know. I don’t count.’ Just years ago, I told someone I live in Maywood and the person replied, ‘I didn’t think there were any white people in Maywood,’ so we’re downright smug about [diversity].”
But race is not the same thing as culture. When she began teaching at Forest Park Middle School, almost everyone agreed that discipline in the school was a problem. She acknowledged that some of her challenges in classroom management early on were “her problem.”
“I needed to change as the faces of our students changed,” she said.
She had to understand the culture and environment from which some of her students came.
“What I needed to consider,” she explained, “was these children I was seeing every day didn’t necessarily come to school having eaten breakfast, or maybe they had things going on in their lives.”
But more than gaining increased empathy, what made her job as a classroom manager easier was a change in the school’s culture, a program instituted by Superintendent Louis Cavallo in 2007 called PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Support).
“PBIS is about reinforcing positive behaviors,” Bussert explained, “and yes, there is a hierarchy of consequences for poor choices and negative behaviors. But if all teachers are speaking the same language, if children hear the same expectations from teachers, if every classroom has the same rules, you’re creating a system that kids can succeed in.”
“There are at least three different cultures represented in our middle school,” she said. “You can’t expect behaviors that haven’t been taught. Our students might need to learn that there can be two sets of rules, school rules and street rules.”