It’s hard to believe, but it was almost two years ago now that my colleague and I tried to teach our kids about same-sex marriage. It was in the wake of a state-wide ruling that same-sex marriage would, in fact, be legal in Illinois. I, being a gay man, and my teammate, an ally, were thrilled for this progress, and immediately wanted to share it with the kids.
But I was wary, I’ll admit, and not because I didn’t personally think it was the right thing to do, but because I knew the public school system all too well. I knew its bureaucracy, its culture of fear, and its inability to withstand social trends, especially in the Midwest. I was worried that I’d be pegged as an agenda-pusher, as one of those gays that was trying to make everyone else gay, as one of those teachers going to whatever lengths to be accepted just as I was.
“The classroom is not the place for personal agendas,” I was told while being reprimanded one day.
I furrowed my brow, upset by the accusation, all the while knowing that this was, in fact, how it would be perceived. I found it fascinating, though, that as a gay man, I couldn’t teach about gay rights, but meanwhile, my female counterparts could teach about women’s rights, Jewish teachers could teach about the Holocaust, and black teachers could teach about black history. None of these educators were pegged for their personal agendas… but I was.
After all, I had done my due diligence, I had made sure to provide resources outlining both sides of the argument, and I had very adamantly discussed with my teammate how we could not and should not advocate for one side over the other in our discussion of same-sex marriage with our students. We simply could not come in with a bias, especially if we wanted our students to be well-informed decision-makers, free to use their own logic and reasoning to make decisions.
But months later, despite my adherence to best practices and despite the fact that the district had banned the discussion, I was still being reprimanded. The superintendent had decided he wanted to meet with me. While he summoned me under the guise of many of the district’s other initiatives, I knew what he wanted to talk to me about.
“Frankly speaking,” I said, “I’m incredibly disappointed with the district’s decision to ban discussions about this.”
“It sounds like you’re taking this personally,” he said to me, “but this isn’t personal.”
I was aghast. Of course I was taking it personally.
“What you’re telling me is that I can’t talk about people like me in school. And I can’t help but take that personally,” I replied.
You may, at this point, be wondering what this has to do with Columbus Day. It certainly seems unrelated, but I assure you, it’s not. It seems that, in recent years, it’s become a fad to hate on Christopher Columbus. And while I’m most assuredly hating along with the haters, I don’t think it’s necessarily right to jump on the bandwagon and make our kids haters, too. In fact, when you begin to look online, you’ll see tons of resources that are clearly anti-Columbus, and while these resources present facts, they also are laden with bias. And in my opinion, this is just as bad as pushing any agenda, no matter how socially just it may be.
Because this, in and of itself, ignores the tenets of social justice education and neglects to put the decision-making power truly in the hands of the children. Instead of coming into the classroom, guns blazing, one should approach the students with thoughtful inquiry, a presentation of a variety of resources, and an understanding that your children may leave the classroom still believing that Columbus was a hero, that it is our God-given right to have claimed this land we call America, and that we should continue to celebrate this man on the second Monday of October each and every year. And the frustrating thing is that there really is nothing you can do about that.
And likewise, it’s not your job to do anything about that.
What is your job is to present the facts, just as my colleague and I tried to do almost two years ago now. While some believe we came in with the agenda of changing our children’s minds, alas, we only came in preaching the agenda that it was okay to talk about, to share our opinions and feelings on the matter, and to come to an understanding that tolerance of diverse opinions is all that is necessary in this big, scary world of ours.
One of my biggest criticisms from the entire same-sex marriage situation was that I didn’t ask for permission first–that I didn’t go to my administrator, and ask if I could, in fact, discuss this controversial issue. Controversy, however, is what sparks the mind, encourages critical thinking, and most of all, helps us learn. Moreover, controversy is merely defined by the values of the time, and if we allow ourselves to be a victim of our times, then we only set ourselves up for stagnation and a lack of progress. As I said before, I have a hard time believing anyone would stop a black teacher from talking about slavery or a female teacher from talking about a woman’s right to vote, both issues that were once highly controversial.
The fact of the matter is, we shouldn’t have to ask to talk about controversy in our classroom, so long as we are doing it in a way that allows for diverse perspectives and doesn’t preach one side over the other. We owe it to our kids to not dictate their opinions, and we owe it to our world to create responsible decision-makers who analyze situations and weigh the facts before making judgments.
So today, as you enter your classroom or enter into conversations with your own children, and as you prepare to talk about this undeniably pivotal point in world history, remember to use this controversial day as a moment of empowerment for children. Don’t tell them that Columbus was a bad guy; instead, give them the facts, diversify your resources, and let them come to the decision on their own.