Friday, April 27, 2018

Kids speaking up…and apologizing

In February, after I indicated that Bill Finger's son Fred was gay while speaking at a Maryland elementary school, a few kids snickered or recoiled. I made clear that we treat all people with respect and the intolerant behavior immediately stopped. 

Later that day, Joe, the father of twin girls who were at that assembly, came in to meet with me. He's in a same-sex marriage and was understandably upset that his daughters heard peers react insensitively to an aspect of their family dynamic. Along with the vice principal, we had a difficult, important talk about how to continue to be inclusive in a school setting without putting anyone like Joe's daughters in an uncomfortable situation like that. There are no simple solutions. 

I posted about this and Joe (whom I originally called Matt to protect his privacy) commented.

On 4/23/18, Joe sent me a follow-up and gave me permission to post (slightly edited). 

This is going to make you cry. In both ways.

What an amazing day and moment. We had a homophobic incident at an author presentation at school. Many students reacted to the word "gay" in a very ugly way. Both my girls were there. They took it pretty rough. 

Today, thanks to the leadership and the concern of our wonderful principal and vice principal, and thanks to my friend Jill and her daughter for giving us the idea, my daughters wrote letters to their classmates letting them know how their negative reaction to the mention of LGBTQI people and same-sex couples made my daughters feel. In writing the letter they also were able to express how they felt about being adopted in regards to their classmates' expressions of sadness and questions regarding us as their parents and us as a family. They read their letters to all four fourth grade classes this afternoon.

As their dad I was nervous for them, and this morning I panicked and wanted to put a stop to it. But they both insisted on reading their letters. I can't say enough about how brave I [feel they are] and how much I admire them. And [about] the fact that our school, their teachers, our county, and our state support us as a family and as members of the community. It was a very emotional afternoon. And of course I couldn't help connect it to my experience as a boy in elementary school, afraid of being found out, having no resources to help me understand, and feeling/fearing no support or acceptance from even favorite teachers. I think of the little boys and girls on that carpet today and I feel happy for them. It is a different world, with its problems still, but today is a hopeful day and I'm feeling pretty damn great!

Afterward a girl talked about her gay sister in high school. Then a boy said he was one of the kids who said "Yuck!" when the author [said that Fred Finger was] gay. This boy said he felt bad knowing that he hurt my daughters' feelings. He said he [now] feels different and is sorry for what he said. Another boy said there is no such thing as normal. WOW! All the comments were positive. Fingers crossed that there will not be much parental backlash for the school! I am amazed! Like I said, I'm feeling very hopeful and good about our little part of the world today!

In addition, we may be speaking as family on this incident and its ripples at Howard County Live in June. And our school has decided to have an ongoing policy of letting students write letters about their uniqueness and differences and reading them to their classmates. I think this is a great thing!

I second that. 

Joe also allowed me to share the (again lightly edited) letters his daughters bravely shared.

Letter of Joe's daughter A: 

I want to talk to you about something that happened a few weeks ago at school. I want to talk about when the author came in and was talking about one of the guys that invented Batman [who] had a gay son who had a daughter. A lot of kids gasped, some people said ew, some people said yuck, and other people started whispering. That made me feel sad and it made me want to cry a little. Afterwards I did cry. I just wanted my daddy to come get me and take me home. Someone in our class said that gay was a bad word. That made me want to cry even more because I have two dads. 

On that day in lunch line, three kids were laughing and joking and teasing each other about being gay. That made me feel even sadder and I wanted to yell at them and tell them that they were being very mean and I was really wishing that I could leave school, but I couldn't. When I told a grown-up in the cafeteria about what those kids were saying, she just said OK and she walked away and didn't do anything. I really wanted her to stop them and I really wanted to go home and not come back for a week.

At school some people have told me when they find out that I'm adopted that it is sad that I don't have a mom, or that it's weird that I have two dads. Some people ask me how it is possible that I have two dads and no mother. My sister and I were adopted when we were born. I've seen photos of my mom but I've never met her. I just want all of you to know that it is a little sad, but I love my daddy and my papa and my family and I feel like I am a very happy person. I love when we all hang out together playing family games or watching TV. When other kids at school or on the bus make fun of gay people, it makes me sad, but it also makes me angry and I want to yell at them and tell them there's nothing wrong with it. I want people here to change, to not think it's weird or wrong to have two dads or to be adopted. 

I am OK if you ask me questions about my life, I just don't like it if you ask in a way that makes it sound like it's weird or bad or if your response is negative. I am really happy we moved here. I like this school. I have lots of friends and [the] teachers are great. I want to say that my friend J has never teased me or made me feel bad that my family is different.

Thank you for listening to this. My papa says that just because someone is different it doesn't mean that different is bad. He says it's our differences that make life interesting. My daddy says that he wishes he could protect us from all mean people, but he can't, [and] if people ask me questions, I should answer them and try to explain to them. I just hope we can all treat each other with respect and see that if you say something is weird or yucky out loud you might be hurting someone's feelings.

Letter of Joe's daughter G:

I want to talk about the author that came to school. When people made those noises and said things like yuck and ew, it hurt my feelings. I wanted to ask you guys why you would say that because I don't think that being gay is a bad thing. I feel good about having two dads. Sometimes I wish I could meet my mom but it's OK that I have not. I know that in the future I can meet her if she wants to. I feel really nice to be a part of my family, we are a fun family, I mean happy. We are mostly always nice to each other and we take care of each other.

I really don't like it when people make fun of people like my daddy and my papa. I don't think it's the right thing to do. Everybody is different.

I have two dads because I'm adopted. One of my best friends, A, is adopted and she only has a mom, no dad. We have friends that are adopted that have two dads and our neighbors on the next street are two moms with one daughter they adopted. 

I wish there were more families like mine at school. Adoption isn't bad or sad. My daddy says there are all kinds of ways to make a family. He was raised by his grandma and grandfather. My papa has a mother and dad and he also has a stepmom. She is one of my papa's best friends. They talk to each other every week. 

It's not a nice feeling to be teased or to hear people say bad things about your family. I want everybody here to treat each other nice even if someone is different or their family is different.

Thank you for listening to me.

Note from Dr. Tiffany Tresler, the principal: 

Heather [Moraff, the vice principal] and I both agreed that [the letter-sharing] experience was one of the most rewarding and heartfelt moments that we have had in our careers. We both became a bit teary as the [two sisters] shared their letters with their classmates. We told the students that they were tears of joy in how proud we were that they could be so brave to share something so personal to them. 

The response from the other students in that moment was so supportive and understanding. We feel so blessed to be a part of this moment of making a difference. The ending was nearly perfect—a student spoke up and said, "I was one of the students who said eww, and now I reflected on that."

As you wrote to us before, "the story continues." We can't wait to see what's next!

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