One day last spring, our 10-year-old daughter Clara came home sobbing from school. We pieced together the story:
While waiting for the bus at the end of the day, her classmates decided to take a poll on whether it's "OK" to be gay. Twenty students voted "no." Four others, including my daughter and two Russian-speaking students who may have misunderstood the question, voted "yes" — it is "OK" to be gay.
The vote wasn't an abstract one for Clara. Bob, Jeff, Sino, Jennifer, Catherine, Lecia, Ben, Ricky: I can list so many friends, some as close as family, who risk the sting and stench of anti-gay sentiment not in a 4th-grade vote but in their everyday lives, every day. They buy Clara's Girl Scout cookies, praise her artwork, celebrate her victories and lean in closely to listen to her fears. They are vital threads in the fabric of her life.
Clara's three closest friends voted the other way that day at school. One of them told Clara they could no longer be friends and refused to sit with my daughter on the bus ride home.
Fourth-grade society is like that, experimenting with broken and renewed friendships, testing how it feels to be mean. That's a talk we've had many times with Clara.
This moment, though, prompted a new discussion. Clara had stood up against the majority, a very American — and very courageous — thing to do. We told Clara it would have been OK to not speak in that situation, to abstain or choose not to vote if she felt at risk. And we also told her that we know her heart is too big and too good not to speak up.
Even our son, just shy of 14 and testing the boundaries of teenage jadedness, was moved. He took Clara aside and told her he was proud to be her brother. She beamed.
Then we went bowling to celebrate, on a school night. Homework could wait. They'd both learned more than enough already that day, about themselves, about America, about the politics of stigma and the strength of family.
In the same moment I'm encouraged by my children, I'm encouraged by what we have to offer in this issue of Teaching Tolerance — and the many parallels I find to Clara's story.
Mary M. Harrison writes about the loneliness of being bullied on the bus and what some schools are doing to address it. Dana Williams writes about parenting for tolerance. Carrie Kilman writes about the complex task of teaching immigrant students, reaching beyond barriers of language and culture. Camille Jackson writes about student activists struggling against social boundaries. And Jeff Sapp writes about one of the more amazing women I have ever met, Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein, an inspiration for all the children we love, as parents and as educators.