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The Sea Is a Good Place to Think of the Future April 14, 2010

Posted by monty in education.
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When I moved from Santa Barbara, California, to the metro Atlanta area nearly a year ago, I freely admit to having many preconceived notions about what I’d encounter there.  Admittedly, these were mainly fueled by my childhood memories of The Dukes of Hazzard, and I fully expected to find myself surrounded by hayseeds and bumpkins whose family tree, to borrow a line from Bill Hicks, was a stump.

And I was really in the dark when I imagined what my students would be like.  I had become accustomed to working with preservice teachers who were intelligent and motivated, and who were receptive to any ideas that they thought would make them better teachers.  Most importantly of all, their students were their primary concern, and they wanted to make sure – even as student teachers – that they were doing right by them.  I didn’t know what to expect from my students in Georgia.  The popular perception – not entirely unearned – is that Southern education is a sham, and I could easily picture a classroom full of mouthbreathing troglodytes who were only getting into the teaching profession for the summers off so they could help their pappy run the family moonshine business.

What I found – because I’m always wrong – is that my students were much like those I had in California.  Undergrads this time, true, but no less concerned with their future students’ well-being, and just as sponge-like in their hunger to soak up any ideas that sounded promising.  It’s been a humbling experience to see my own prejudices so thoroughly shattered, and for a while I’ve been operating under the belief that the only substantial difference between preservice teachers in California and those in Georgia is their geographical location.

Until today, that is.

On the schedule for today was the understandably delicate issue of gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (GLBT) students in class.  When you’re dealing with preservice teachers, it’s important for them to see that this isn’t an issue to avoid, and with preservice English teachers especially, it’s increasingly crucial that they be aware of the Young Adult literature available to help students who are out of the closet or questioning their sexual orientation come to grips with who they are.  The statistics dealing with LGBT teens who commit suicide (or make an attempt) are staggering, and teachers should be equipped with the knowledge that these struggles are happening in their classrooms, and they need to be confident in strategies to ensure that those classrooms are a safe space for all students to learn.

In California – at least the part of it where I spent the last several years – the idea that LGBT students shouldn’t be accepted or treated respectfully in classrooms would be laughed at.  It’s something I didn’t spend a lot of time formally talking about in class, simply because in the course of our discussions we explored the need for safe spaces and for ensuring that different perspectives and voices are honored, and above all, that no student in the classroom should feel harassed or intimidated.  To spend time belaboring the point with these students would be like reminding someone of the importance of breathing.  Their attitude of acceptance was a foregone conclusion.

(As a side note, notice that there’s a difference between acceptance of homosexuality and promotion of it.  I’m not asking teachers to change their religious beliefs or prejudices.  It’s not appropriate for me to foist my own beliefs on others, and while it would be nice to live in a world where religious mania and close-minded bigotry didn’t rule the day, I understand that that’s a battle too big for me to fight alone.  All I’m asking is for teachers to treat all their students like human beings, which shouldn’t be a radical proposition.)

Today, however, I encountered the first substantive difference between the two states.  My students read a series of articles about acceptance of LGBT teens in the English classroom, and how literature can be used to give those students a voice.  One of the articles (quite reasonably, I thought) advocated teachers putting a rainbow sticker or maybe a small flag somewhere in their classroom to acknowledge it as a safe, harassment-free space.  The derision this idea received is akin to those people who, when reminded of Black History Month, belligerently ask, “Why isn’t there a White History Month?  Well?”  Several of the students amazingly saw this as being discriminatory toward straight people – that by putting up a rainbow sticker, you’d also need to put up a “straight” sticker, and a sticker supporting interracial relationships, and, even though I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, a bestiality sticker.  Making a public display, however modest, of GLBT acceptance was “going too far,” in one student’s words.  By the end of their table discussion, this small group was practically rolling on the floor in delight at all the clever new “politically correct” stickers they were coming up with, all so that, heaven forbid, GLBQT teens could feel accepted and safe.

The thing that drives me absolutely insane about this line of (non)logic is the majority culture’s failure to realize how many things they take for granted. There isn’t a White History Month because every fucking month of the year is White History Month.  Putting up a rainbow sticker doesn’t discriminate against straight people because straight people dominate every facet of our society and determine the rules that non-straight people have to live with.  It’s a short-sighted view of the world that’s completely ignorant of just how good the majority culture has it.  And as a member of that majority culture in just about every way (except for the atheism and the baldness), it’s something I try not to forget.

More difficult to handle was the student who actually suggested that, because public schools are funded by taxpayer money, we should segregate schools to protect the general public’s desires.  That idea is so beyond the pale – that corralling all the gays into their own school would be a good idea, because goodness knows we haven’t learned anything about racial or religious discrimination in this country – that I was completely at a loss for words.  I couldn’t begin to come up with an even-handed, rational response, so I just let it go.  Would it have made me feel better to tell her she was crazy?  Absolutely.  Would it have done any good?  Probably not.

(I should also mention, just for accuracy’s sake, that this wasn’t symptomatic of the entire class.  There are, for instance, three students whose more enlightened views on this issue I already know, and while I wish they had spoken up so I didn’t have to, I understood their silence.)

The most difficult thing about today’s class was being reminded yet again how bigotry often exists where you least expect it.  The conversation today doesn’t begin to change my mind about these students – I still maintain that they’re smart, dedicated, and well-intentioned.  But they’re also clearly products of their environment: conservative and religious, and living in a state whose discriminatory practices are well-documented.  And it’s clear that when it comes to equal rights and fairness for all, we still have a long way to go.


Current listening:

Horse Feathers – Thistled Spring (2010)



1. Katie Reed - April 14, 2010

If you are giving rights to a minority, obviously you are taking away rights from the majority!

Also, California is not exactly the beacon of rationality you want to present when discussing gay rights. We were dumb enough to put civil rights to a popular vote in the first place so we are just as backwards and reprehnsible as any Southern state.

Basically, fuck this whole country.

2. amandalovesenglish - April 14, 2010

I agree with Katie that California definitely shouldn’t be pinned as the center for GLBT rights (which I don’t mean to suggest you are doing here) but it sure as heck is a full length ahead of what you are describing here. I remember having a discussion in class about allowing students to read books that featured GLBT characters. One girl actually said that as a mother, she would worry that allowing her children to read about GLBT people would expose them to the idea and thus increase their likelihood of becoming GLBT. Really? She was shut down pretty quickly when another girl pointed out that reading about vampires didn’t make her a vampire but it was still shocking.

3. rcm - April 14, 2010

Yeah, I had originally included a section that acknowledged the passage of Prop 8 and pointed out the cultural wasteland that exists outside Los Angeles and San Francisco, but in the end it was a little outside the scope of the point I was trying to make. I was just sort of shocked at how much more sophisticated the Californians were in their attitudes toward sexual orientation.

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