Little Rock Central High School's GSA Club

Last night I got in bed and curled up with the latest issue of NEA Today.  Even though I'm not teaching this year, I'm still a member of the National Education Association, and receive their magazine as a benefit.  The cover stories "Literature in the Digital Age" and "Religious Groups Reach Out to Schools" initially attracted me to the October/November issue, but reading through it, I turned the page and got very excited to see a photograph of a familiar sight - Little Rock Central High School.

Most people recognize Central High as the infamous sight of the Little Rock Nine, where Little Rock public schools attempted integration for the first time by enrolling nine students from the all-black high school across town.  One of the most famous images of this incident is that of Elizabeth Eckford attempting to enter the school while separated from the other eight.  The incident gained national press when the National Guard was called in, Little Rock's white population went crazy, and the following year all schools were closed to eliminate the possibility of integration.  I'm happy to say, as a Little Rock native, that this is not the climate in Little Rock any more.  When I was in eighth grade, the 40th anniversary of the incident rolled around and President Clinton came to speak to the huge, multi-ethnic crowd.  In fact, I'd venture a guess that Central High is now majority African-American.  There are also a lot more private schools in Little Rock with large white populations... but we won't get in to that now. 

The facade of Central is still just as grand as ever, but I remember visiting friends there when I had a day off from my private school, and some of the walls were crumbling in the classrooms.  Luckily, (prepare for a bad pun), walls aren't the only things that are still crumbling at Central, (and in all fairness, they might have repaired that problem since I was last there).
The article I turned to in NEA Today was called "The Power of One," and was written to encourage teachers to embrace students of the GLBTQ (gay, lesbian, bi, transgender, queer) community in order to prevent incidents ranging from bullying, to dropping out, to suicide.  The driving point of the article is to remind educators of the importance of "adults who will stand up for (the GLBTQ students)" being present in schools.

Aside from both loving the message and bitterly thinking about how my job might have been in jeopardy if I had ever proposed sponsoring a Gay Straight Alliance at the last school I worked in, I got excited to see that the curly haired youth on the far right is Devon Beardon, a student I had the pleasure of meeting at CAR - the Center for Artistic Revolution, in Little Rock when I visited their youth section - DYSC - Diverse Youth for Social Change.

Both CAR & DYSC are amazing programs headed up by Randi Romo, who is Devon's grandmother, and who I also had the extremely good fortune of accidentally meeting at a poetry reading at Sticky Fingerz, during the Arkansas Literary Festival that Lennon and I volunteered for last April.  When I told Randi about seeing the article, she said there was one false bit of information - that a former Central student profiled, Jeanie, had not been beaten up in front of teachers in the Central High parking lot, but that she had been bullied, and an administrator had threatened to expel her if she brought forth any more complaints about her treatment.  I hope whoever said that to her has since been fired.

The article also details the importance of teacher support for ALL students, establishing groups like the Gay Straight Alliance, which we had at my high school in northwest Arkansas when I was a senior in 2002, establishing policies against intolerable behavior - including my pet peeve - calling things "gay" - (ask any of my former students - my class was a no gay/retarded zone!), and participating in the Day of Silence, which students at my last school did do on their own.  The next one coming up is April 16, 2010.  I want to get one going at my current school through the Youth for Unity program!

Another element of the article was the suggestion of incorporating characters and literature into the high school canon of required reading.  I had the book Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger, about a transgender teen, on my classroom library shelf, and it was checked out multiple times, and the students who read it enjoyed it and recommended it to others without any raise of an eyebrow, (it was the administration and parts of the community that I saw as ultra-conservative).  It was also telling, to me, that a film like Milk came out (no pun this time) and met success in a city like Little Rock, that is often overlooked by the cosmopolitan crowd.

I hope that with the recent speech by Obama, as well as other advances in cultural dialogue, will encourage schools and students to catch up with the age of tolerance.  It would seem obvious that a society divided by prejudice and hate can not thrive, but then one hears the term "gay" slung around hallways as though it had no tangible affect on individuals, and it becomes clear that the collective empathy of American society still has a long way to go.

Even after teaching Elie Wiesel's Night and a holocaust unit, there was still a large disconnect in students between the lessons of history and their daily lives.  A unified front is necessary to quell the accepted intolerance practices that permeate modern speech and thought.  I'm happy to be a part of an organization like NEA that backs cultural acceptance of all people - old and young.