Friday, January 1, 2010

Raised Right

"This is an earthquake issue. This will change our state forever. Because the immediate consequence, if gay marriage goes through, is that K-12 little children will be forced to learn that homosexuality is normal, natural and perhaps they should try it."

– Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann (R-MN)

During the last presidential election, I was excited to be teaching because it was the first time I had greater control over lesson plans. The teacher who shadowed an autistic student in my class offered to get me ballots and “I voted” stickers since her mother worked at the polls, which I thought was a great idea. I decided we would do a mock election, talking about the candidates and ballot questions beforehand, and sharing the results the day after the election. The fifth-graders were excited too, paying attention to the candidates and the issues.

As expected in Cambridge, the results were pretty one-sided. John McCain got one or two votes, the Rainbow Party candidate received one vote, and the rest went to Barack Obama. One of the ballot questions asked whether to change the possession of a small amount of marijuana from a felony to a misdemeanor. This passed, making one of my students cry when I announced the results on the rug. Although her classmates didn’t know, I knew that she lived with her father because her mother had substance abuse problems. I tried to soothe the girl by saying this wouldn’t change the consequences for people with using more dangerous drugs. It’s hard to know student secrets and adequately address their needs in front of others.

After national and Massachusetts election results were covered, I was ready to move on when a student asked, “What about Proposition 8?” For those of you who don’t know (living under a rock) that was the “California Marriage Protection Act” to determine whether or not gay people should still legally be allowed to marry. This was not something I wanted to discuss with ten-year-olds. As a teacher, it’s my job to keep my opinions out of discussion as much as possible. Ten-year-olds tend to echo their parents’ opinions, and may or may not challenge those beliefs when they’re older. As a Social Studies teacher, I’m supposed to open the realm of possibilities, so they don’t take ideas they’ve been spoon-fed for granted, and make their own decisions. This is why I’d rather teach older students.

“The gay marriage law was overturned, which means that gay couples will not be able marry in California for much longer. And there’s a question whether those who did get married will still have valid marriages.” I was hoping we could move on, but these students had more questions. And they always wanted to know my opinion. While I tried to keep my opinions out of my lessons, they knew I have a live and let live philosophy. I’d brought it up when teaching them about the importance of separation of church and state, especially in light of what had preceded the amendment.

“I don’t want to tell adults they can't marry,” I said. “If they’re not hurting anyone, it’s not my business. I know some people don’t believe it’s right because of their religious beliefs, but I don't believe they should force their beliefs on others.”

A girl raised her hand, so I called on her. “But if we let gay people have children, they won’t be raised right.”

“That’s not true,” blurted another girl. “I have a gay uncle.”

I looked over the sea of impressionable students, who were looking to me and who could relay whatever I said to their parents. It was a room with a mix of twenty children who represented about thirty nationalities and religions. And in that sea was one adopted child with two fathers, but none of the other students knew that. How was I to deal with this issue without offending any child or parent who disagreed with the family unit of that boy and his fathers, while not damaging him? Whatever I was going to say, I had the space of a sigh to answer.

“How many of you are raised by just one parent?” I had a smattering of hands. “Keep your hands up. How many of you are raised by someone other than a parent? Keep your hands up.” I paused. “Look around. It’s almost all of you.”

I continued, “When I was a child, almost all of my friends were raised by two married parents. Do you know that thirty years ago, you would have been the exceptions to the rule instead of the majority? Do you know that your families would’ve been judged by most people for not having the right kind of family?”

The boy had no change in expression, and I made sure to not look at him any longer than the other students as I surveyed their attentive faces. I lowered my voice, “Any place where you are cared for and loved is family. It doesn’t matter how you’re related, just as long as you are loved.”

Many of my students come from fractured families with drugs, alcohol abuse, prison, and having babies too young, making one parent or both parents unfit to raise their kids, and so someone else takes them in, not always benefiting these children. What’s the likelihood that grandparents who didn’t do so well with their own children will do better with their grandchildren?

Then there’s this boy of gay parents, a straight A student who did every assignment thoroughly, with perfect penmanship like he’d gone to Catholic school, and who doodled guns and soldiers in the margins (Just like my son does). He always participated in class and was one of the only children I could seat next to the autistic kid because he could put up with his idiosyncratic behavior. It could’ve been any child with two fathers, but it wound up being the model student and person, debunking the myth he wasn’t “raised right”. Sadly, he had to hide who he was from his peers because of preconceived notions about the legitimacy of his family.


  1. Wow, you tackled a VERY difficult topic with ease and grace. Bravo.

  2. While it's true "this boy of gay parents" may not be able to share his experiences with his peers right now, I am sure he will always remember your compassion and optimism in dealing with such a controversial issue with his classmates.

  3. My post was about acknowledging what I consider a terrible mistake. They are so easy to make. It may be embarrassing to admit, but it is worse to pretend you are incapable of making any. On another note, you are not going to believe this story--it's insanely coincidental. I read your post--Raised Right--TODAY.
    I went down the list of popular posts and yours was the only one I read because I didn't have much time. I loved it--I usually try not to discuss these issues, just like you, but I think you handled it very well. I know we were raised right--we don't believe in bigotry.

  4. You handled that so well! Wow!

    My sixth graders amaze me. They are just beginning to think for themselves and I love the questions they ask and how they love to go deeper into a subject.

    Thanks for commenting on my blog. =)

  5. Edie, Joanne, JCK, and Joan, thank you for the positive feedback.

  6. Bravo Theresa. A very hard subject to tackle and you handled it so beautifully!

  7. Another very thoughtful and interesting blog. Thanks

  8. Lovely!

    It's tricky with groups of elementary kids. My class of 7 and 8 year olds come from a variety of backgrounds as well, of course and I stick with the "your family is made up of the people hwo love you and keep you safe."

    I've taught kids who lived in "normal" two parent families who I reported to DCFS and prayed for each night because of the danger they were in. I've taught a kid who lived with her dad's ex-girlfriend who was a single mom of six herself and had excellent care and help with homework. We all cried when she was returned to her father.

    It is these exceptions which make it so challenging to talk about families to the children.

    You did a beautiful job.

  9. Thanks, Jacquie and Laurie.
    Lora96, the fact that you have a stake in your students' lives shows that you're the kind of teacher who makes a difference in their lives.

  10. Wow, what a way to handle that subject, especially with a group of 5th graders. Thank you for your comment on my own post. I know that it will eventually get better ... I look forward to that! It's my first year, and it's going to be hard no matter what ... I just keep telling myself that I need to just take it one day at a time and keep a smile on my face.

    Thanks again!

  11. This reminds me why I do not teach younger kids. You handled this as well as anyone could. I get nervous enough about offending college students when I state my views on this issue. I'm always afraid someone will go running to the dean. (Which has never happened, by the way.) Most students actually, seem to agree with my own "live and let live" position.

  12. LIttle Miss English Teacher, thank you for the comment. You're more than halfway through your first year. I hope it keeps getting better.

    Paul Swendon, in order to get students to think, we walk a tightrope, regardless of age. I think with younger grades, the tightrope is longer and it's farther to fall.