Q: I am a grandmother of children attending Efland-Cheeks Elementary School [in North Carolina], and I heard a third-grade teacher recently read a book focusing on homosexuality to his class. We were told the book was read because a student was bullied. I read the book, called “King & King,” which had nothing about bullying and appeared aimed at indoctrinating children into a gay agenda. The prince is attracted to a man. They get married and kiss on the mouth. The book wants young children to believe this is normal. The concept of homosexuality is foreign to the majority of children eight years old. I am a Christian, and my faith does not support homosexuality. I think that parents should have been notified before the book was read and that the teacher should be reprimanded. But school officials said that they won’t ban this book and that it didn’t violate anyone’s rights. What about our rights? — Name withheld, Burlington, N.C.
A: I can see why you’re upset, without conceding that your rights are being infringed. In fact, Efland is not far from my house, and it’s known to be a deeply religious community. In large part because of religion, acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people lags in the South, where nearly 4 in 10 parents said that they would be “uncomfortable” if their child had a class on LGBT history, according to a recent GLAAD survey. When I drove through the area last week, I counted eight churches, including Fairview Baptist (but more about that in a bit).
Change is coming to Efland, as it is to all of North Carolina. Same-sex marriage is now legal, and Efland’s population is diversifying as new residents move in. Some of them are same-sex couples who send their kids to the school where this controversy erupted. So it’s not true that homosexuality is foreign to third-graders; your grandkids may very well have classmates with gay parents.
But what happened? Omar Currie, the third-grade teacher, said that when he picked up his students several weeks ago from their gym class, two of them were crying — one, a girl, who was upset by what she had seen happen to the other, a boy. They told Currie that another boy had called him “gay” and “a girl” — as in “Hey, girl, throw me the ball.”
Rather than punish the bully, Currie, who says he is gay, borrowed the fairy tale “King & King,” by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland, from the assistant principal — a book used in the school previously, without incident — to read to the class. I’ve read it, and it’s a sweet story, with big, bright pictures, about acceptance, inclusion and love. The last line reads, like just about every other in the genre: “And they lived happily ever after.”
Currie told me that a few students said they were “uncomfortable” because they’d never seen two men marry or kiss each other. But overall, Currie says, “the kids told me that the book is about treating others the way they want to be treated.” More importantly, he says, there hasn’t been anymore name-calling since he read it.
Among the students, that is.
There has been plenty among parents and other adults, including one who commented on one Web site: “Keep the filth out of the schools. GOD teach’s it’s wrong and no gay freak needs to be teaching children it’s o.k.”
Books, though, can be powerful “change agents,” says John Claude Bemis, a prominent children’s book author. “Reading stories is a powerful experience. Where else in life do we have this unique opportunity to see the world through someone else’s eyes? So if we want our children to be empathetic, to be kind, we need to expose them to a wide variety of perspectives.”
“The question is, ‘How do we teach empathy to our students?’ ” Sharon Wheeler, a retired North Carolina guidance counselor, told me. And that’s exactly the right question, regardless of which side of the fence you’re on, because LGBT students are not the only ones being bullied. Students who are African American, who have special needs, or, yes, who are Christian all may find themselves in a bully’s cross hairs. Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, said that its survey, Playgrounds and Prejudice, reports that 75 percent of elementary school kids said “students at their school are called names, made fun of or bullied with . . . regularity.” If three-quarters of our kids are being taunted at this age, who can’t be in favor of teaching empathy?
As for “King & King,” school officials have voted twice now to allow the book in the classroom. Some dissatisfied parents are appealing that decision, which is their right, of course.
While driving home from the school the other night, I noticed Fairview Baptist’s roadside sign, which I think deserves the final word on this matter: “Let your faith be bigger than your fear.”