Saturday, February 8, 2020

From dispiriting to uplifting: a tale of two school assemblies that mention a gay man

I’ve been on a good streak. 

It’s been many months since a school administrator has come up to me after my presentation for grades 3-5 to gently chide me for indicating that someone in my story is gay. (This has happened about five times in my many hundreds of assemblies over the past 10 years—a tiny percentage, yet still too high.) 

The concern is almost always the same: it’s not about the well-being of the kids, it’s about the risk of offending certain parents.

My school presentation is an emotional, twist-filled true story that I’m so fortunate to be able to share. It generates gasps, tears, and cheers from audiences as young as third grade. Three glimpses of feedback:

“In 30 years of hosting best-selling authors, Marc’s presentation was the best I have ever witnessed. Judging from the student response, he transformed what it means to be a writer.”
—Karen Palko, teacher, International School of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

“Consummate professional. Very animated, humorous, and respectful. The kids were riveted throughout. As our head of school said, ‘He speaks kid.’ One teacher said it’s one of the very best author assemblies she’s seen in her 25 years here.”
—Cynthia Millman, library co-director, Town School, New York, NY

“My principal and almost every teacher said this was the best assembly they have ever attended. Educational value? 5 out of 5 stars. Entertainment value? 5 out of 5 stars. Marc’s amazing story kept an entire room of 3-5 grade students and teachers enthralled for an hour with no special effects or tricks.”
—Jamie Harris, librarian, Smalley Elementary, Las Vegas, NV

Yet in those rare instances, the benefit of the other 59 minutes, 55 seconds of my hourlong talk is overshadowed by the one sentence when I restate a fact that is in a book that is typically already in the school’s library, Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman.

Alas, what follows is the story that broke my streak. But like the last such story recounted here (which involved intolerance but not an administrator’s attempt at censorship), this ends on a high note…

The set-up

Recently, I had the privilege of speaking at 10 schools in Michigan, two a day for five days in a row. As I always do, even during assemblies in highly conservative communities, I said that Batman co-creator Bill Finger’s son Fred was gay. 

It is not a random fact. (His favorite baseball team? That’s a random fact. So random I don’t know what it was.) Rather it was a critical turning point in the research. Those who have read Bill the Boy Wonder, heard my talk, or seen the documentary Batman & Bill know just how significant that detail is. 

School #1

At the Wednesday morning school (fifth school of the week), during the Q&A, a student asked how Fred died. As I always do, I answered that question honestly: I said that he had a disease called AIDS, which used to be fatal but is now treatable. In the few seconds that took, the principal and another staffer in the back of the room were frantically giving me the throat slash gesture. 

After, the principal complimented me on the presentation, then when the kids that were thronging around me left, she said she didn’t feel it was necessary for me to mention Fred’s sexual orientation (which, of course, is different than mentioning sex). I respectfully disagreed. She said she agreed with me on tolerance, but was worried about getting angry calls from parents.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say you’re tolerant but at the same time ask a presenter who was clearly sensitive and age-appropriate not to say “gay” or “AIDS.” 

She also said that their library has books with gay characters, which should have prevented our conversation. I asked if they check with the parents before their child checks out of any of those books. I was so furious that I don’t remember her answer.

Further, she suggested that in the future I advise schools in advance about the content of my talk. I said it’s all there in my books. But more to the point, I said if I did announce in advance that I will say the word “gay,” some schools would ask me not to—and I will not agree to that.

When she reiterated that it’s not her belief but rather an objection of certain parents, I said this is precisely why we must destigmatize this topic. If kids are not exposed to diversity at home, it is our moral imperative to do our part at school when opportunity presents itself. This gives certain kids a fighting chance to reject prejudices they unwittingly absorbed from their parents. Introducing kids to the many facets of the world is the very purpose of education.

She said it is up to parents to decide what their kids are taught, but, of course, parents do not go through every line of curriculum to sign off on it; if they did, no unit would get unanimous consent and therefore nothing would be approved anywhere. We send our kids to a school that we trust to make educational and behavioral decisions in their best interest.

I said mentioning a gay relationship is no different than mentioning a straight relationship—neither is about sex. Both are about love. I don’t recall a response to that.

(It should go without saying that same-sex marriage is legal in this country. Hardly a secret.)

School #2

Still steaming, I headed to the afternoon school. Moments before starting my first talk there, the principal (principal #2) told me that the principal at the previous school (principal #1) had emailed her about my “content.” I was not surprised. 

Principal #2 said she is new this year and is committed to building tolerance, but feels that with her population, the process has to be gradual. I told her that my assembly has ignited a conversation that has worked wonders in that regard. 

The way to normalize a lifestyle or belief different than the majority is to mention it without judgment in everyday conservation. Obviously sexual orientation is not the focus of my presentation and is mentioned only once five minutes before the end, by which point I’ve long won over the kids, at which point they are more likely to listen in an open-minded way. And sure enough, they do (see “thronging” above). 

Respect kids’ intelligence and capacity for empathy, and they rise to the occasion.

Principal #2 seemed heartened. She also revealed that her daughter is dating a woman, which I felt flipped this situation on its head. I said I didn’t want to overstep, but I felt for her daughter and all others who may be struggling for acceptance in their community, it is our obligation to carry on as planned. She said she agreed and trusted me to exercise my best judgment. I said I always do (at least with respect to assemblies; not so much with fashion or choice of dessert).

In the presentation, I said “gay” without incident. 

But sure enough, as if scripted, the first student question after was “What is gay?” A few kids tittered, which I firmly said is not okay, and I could feel some staff members stiffen.

I said “Gay describes a person who falls in love with someone of the same gender, so a woman loves a woman and a man loves a man.” Then I asked them to look around the room and tell me if everyone looked the same. They said no. I asked if everyone in the room acted the same. They said no. I asked if everyone in the room has the same favorite flavor of ice cream. They screamed no. I said that’s a good thing. Our differences make our world complexly beautiful.

Then the magic happened.

Of the dozens of kids raising hands in a room of 200, I happened to call upon a boy who said “First, my moms are lesbians.” 

No laughing that time.

There was also a subsequent question, but I don’t remember it because it was so inconsequential compared to the comment.

The courage that took. Possibly the first time he felt comfortable enough to discuss this in front of classmates. In front of three grades, no less.

But even if not, even if he has mentioned it many times before, I was so proud of him. His four words said with pride validated my point in a way nothing I could say could do. 

After the assembly, principal #2 thanked me for being so professional and said it was amazing, citing the boy who mentioned his moms with the same overflowing heart I felt for him. I thanked her for her leadership and for taking a leap of faith on a stranger. I left feeling the school is in good hands.

Coda

Though it turned out that principal #1 notified all of the other schools I would visit the rest of week (again, not surprised), none tried to censor me. (Just as none of the four principals from the Monday and Tuesday schools—nor any of the librarians all weekhad said a cautionary peep to me about this.)

It’s this simple: amid all the different kinds of negativity, violence, and disrespect kids are exposed to from the news and entertainment (oh, how many Deadpool shirts I see at elementary assemblies), shouldn’t we revel in the opportunity to tell them about different kinds of love? 

1 comment:

Rita Painter said...

Marc, thank you for being an amazing human being! What lucky kids and staff to have heard your presentation!

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