Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Omar Currie: A Story of Courage



Three weeks ago, Omar Currie, a 25 year-old third grade teacher at Efland-Cheeks Elementary School in Efland, North Carolina, overheard some of his students calling one of their male classmates "gay" and "a woman." Instead of sending the bullies to the principal's office, Currie took a different approach: He read his class King & King, a children's fable by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland that features a same-sex romance.

Currie, who identifies as gay, said that he wanted to have an honest conversation with his students -- whom he affectionately refers to as his "kids" -- on how to treat people who may seem different.  Sometimes the best approach to dealing with our "kids," as I also refer to my students, is to give them a different perspective and a new way of looking at things.  I often play devils advocate with my kids when an issue of ignorance comes up in my classroom, but I deal with teenagers not third graders.  My kids have realized that I'm the school's liberal, and they are learning what provokes my sermons about their ignorance.  I try to be diplomatic at times, but often I end up getting angry, because I think they should have learned this much younger, which is why I find Mr. Currie such an inspiration.

According to Currie, there was a group of boys that had been referring to the child as a girl or a woman, saying "OK, woman," or "OK, girl.". He stepped in and addressed the issue, he said, but then it happened again. It was obvious that this particular child was being bullied and was very upset.  To address the issue, the following day, Currie read his class King & King, a picture book whose main character, a prince, must find a suitor to marry. After meeting with a succession of princesses and feeling no spark, the prince eventually falls in love with another prince. The two wed, becoming kings together, and the book ends with the two kings kissing.

When one student said that it made them uncomfortable, because they'd never seen two men marry each other, Currie said: "Well, it’s normal to feel uncomfortable when you feel something new, but what is the moral? The moral is to treat people well, no matter who they are."

Currie's decision was not without controversy. At least three parents filed formal complaints against him, leading to a meeting at the school last Friday to determine whether the book would be banned. About 200 people showed up to the meeting, with the majority of community members supporting Currie's decision.  "The experience was very overwhelming in terms of the amount of support I received," he said.

However, a number of parents said they were dismayed to find out that Currie had read King & King to his students.  "[You're] infiltrating young minds, indoctrinating children into a gay agenda and actively promoting homosexuality to steer our children in that direction," parent Lisa Baptist said at Friday's meeting, according to WRAL.

"The comments that were most difficult were the ones from parents and community members saying that my kids can't handle this conversation," said Currie. "These people are underestimating my kids. I know what they’re capable of, how intelligent they are and how passionate they are. To say my kids couldn’t have a conversation about bullying was very disgusting to me, quite honestly."

Currie said he knows all too well the pains of being bullied at school. He said the classroom should be a safe environment for all children.  "Every single day in middle school I was called a faggot," he said. "I was called that in front of teachers and no one ever stopped to address the problem. It gave me an understanding that it must be fixed immediately when it happens."  I think many of us faced similar circumstances.  Middle school and high school were hell to me.  I turned to my books and studies harder hoping to get far away as soon as I could, and education was going to be my ticket out.

The school board committee ultimately determined that the book would not be banned, but that in the future, teachers must inform parents about every book they plan to read for their class. I think the school board's decision is one of the most ludicrous I've heard of in a long time.  Why should a teacher have to inform parents of every book they read their kids.  It just adds more work to already overworked and under appreciated teachers.  Currie said he disagrees with the school board's decision, but appreciates the love and support he has received.  "Three weeks ago, after I read the book, it was a very lonely experience, because I felt like I was standing by myself," he said. "On Friday, it wasn’t just me standing up for what was right, it was all of us. That was powerful."

I wish all teachers cared about their kids the way Currie does, and I wish I were brave enough to be able to do the same thing if I were in his situation.  However, while teaching at a small private school may afford me great freedom in the classroom, it also keeps me in the closet and forced to deal with the politics of a small minded community.  Teachers like myself have to work with what we have and change minds in small incremental ways.  It's a slow process, but I do see minds changing, if ever so slightly. 

3 comments:

Michael Dodd said...

A friend of mine says the important things happen little by slowly. This story illustrates that process. The school board's decision helps accommodate those who are lagging behind, but the fact that the majority of those who showed up for the discussion sided with the teacher shows that things are moving in the right direction.

Perhaps parents who think their children are too young to hear about equality might consider that such children are surely not too young to hear about charity, courtesy and kindness.

Susan said...

After reading the inspirational message surrounding Mr. Currie, and then your comments regarding your situation, I makes me hope anew that a position in a more liberal environment opens up for you soon.

Jay M. said...

The parents are going to be overwhelmed. I think that will get the THREE parents' attention that were so closed minded that they missed the whole point of the book. I am so very glad that a school board in North Carolina upheld the teacher, and took an interesting response to it.

I hope that more and more, the Curries in the world can teach their students in this way. I hope that one day, you can too, because I know, too, how tough it can be to play devil's advocate when you just want to scream "THAT HURTS ME, TOO!!"

Peace <3
Jay