Amid the hustle and bustle of our post-lunch routine, I am never sure of what will happen. Over 100 children funnel through our hallway at that point in the day, and the halls are filled with mind-numbing amounts of noise, almost to the point of hypnosis. In the midst of today’s transition, one of my students walked up to me, politely, and told me that another student had called him a name in the bathroom.
At first, I couldn’t really tell if he was serious. Generally, he is a happy-go-lucky kid, and also kind of a kidder. Perhaps it was the hypnotizing noise surrounding me or my previous knowledge of him, but he seemed to have a bit of a smirk on his face.
“Are you joking with me?” I said, in retrospect, idiotically.
“No, I’m not kidding, he called me something bad,” he said, and suddenly he looked genuinely concerned.
“Oh, what did he call you?” I queried.
“Well, he called me G-A-Y,” he retorted quietly, as he spelled out the word.
“You can say the word ‘gay,’ buddy,” I replied. “It’s not a bad word. Do you know what it means?”
“Now why do you think he called you that?” I probed further. I had a feeling why, but I tried not to let my personal biases and emotions get in the way of it. Before he was able to answer, the other student walked up. He knew why I was talking to the other boy.
“You wanna talk about it?” I asked. He knew why we were talking in the first place.
“Well, he was making kissy faces at himself in the mirror,” the other boy explained, “and I thought it was weird, so I called him that word.”
“You can say the word ‘gay,'” I repeated. In that moment it dawned on me why this topic is so taboo. The kids’ first exposure to this word was with a negative connotation. “Do you know what it means?”
“Well… yea,” the other kid replied timidly, as well.
“Well, tell me what it means. I want to know why you used the word,” I said.
“Well, I can’t tell you what it means, because I’ll have to say other bad words.”
I stopped for a second. I didn’t even want to know what was going through this child’s mind right now. Luckily, the first boy replied, “It’s when two people who are the same gender like each other.”
Well put, I thought. And yes, he actually used the word gender. Score.
“Exactly,” I said. “It’s a real thing, and it’s not a swear word.”
“Yea,” the first boy replied, “Not a bad thing.”
I neither agreed nor disagreed, as I felt this was not the place for my opinions.
The tension seemed to calm a bit, but I still hadn’t addressed the real issue.
“It’s not bad to say someone is gay, if they really are. However, you have no right to say that about someone else, if they haven’t already told you that about themselves. [Johnny] making kissy faces in the mirror doesn’t make him gay. It might make him a little silly, maybe a little narcissistic,” I smiled and winked, referring to our recent study of allusions to Greek myths. I continued, “but you have no right to tell someone they are gay in an effort to make fun of them. Got it?”
They nodded and walked away. Problem solved, and not by further instilling fear of the word, but rather by encouraging and understanding of the word.
Two months ago, I wrote about complacency, and today, conversely, I felt empowered. Those two boys, who obviously had some preconceptions about the word “gay” left with a lesson. They left knowing that it was real, and it was something they could talk about, if they did so respectfully. While I was a bit perturbed by their ignorance, which is of no fault of their own, I felt as if I had made an important and purposeful change–and one that was appropriate for ten-year olds.
Our culture seems to be so afraid of this topic, that our kids are now afraid of it as well. I think in order to make kids the responsible decision makers we need, it is important to confront these topics, let them know that they’re real, and help them see that talking about them is much more useful than simply ignoring them. Hopefully, with this one experience, I helped to change that perception… at least a little.