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It Gets Better, Starting in Elementary School

March 14th, 2011 by jacqueline

Also printed in the Huffington Post

As Governor Quinn signed historic anti-bullying legislation at Nettelhorst, my neighborhood’s public elementary school last summer, it came as no surprise when Unabridged, our beloved independent bookstore across the street, asked us to host their upcoming discussion for the release of It Gets Better: The Book. The real shocker, of course, is that a public elementary school openly discussing LGBT issues hardly raises an eyebrow anymore. For my school community, it’s been long, arduous road to normalcy.

Here’s the back-story: Despite our school’s reputation for inclusiveness, two years ago, some Nettelhorst students bullied a gay substitute teacher and a few classmates of same-sex parents.

While our principal reacted to each incident swiftly and appropriately, concerned parents organized a diversity committee to help Nettelhorst foster a culture of tolerance and respect, not just for gay kids, or kids of gay parents, but all kids.

With a new diversity curriculum in place, the committee co-opted the school’s annual Fabric Fence public art project to help drive the point home. At the end of the school year, parents, teachers and students installed the piece on the playground fence as usual, but this time, we arranged the colored fabric strips into the pride rainbow sequence, and posted this little sign:

Each Nettelhorst student has tied a piece of fabric to the fence as a tangible sign of his or her personal intention to create a better world. As Nettelhorst, we’ve also made a collective intention: that each of us becomes kinder, gentler, and more tolerant. Here, the rainbow colors of gay pride are a visible sign of our respect for the neighborhood of which we are a part, and the diversity of families that we serve. In June, Nettelhorst will be the first public school to walk in Chicago’s Gay Pride Parade. We believe family means everybody. Enjoy the summer: SPF 50, baby!

20,000 people pass by Nettelhorst’s playground every single weekend. Many of them stopped, smiled, high-fived, tweeted and posted; some even cried. We never could have anticipated that our rag-tag public civics lesson would have inspired such a deeply personal, neighborhood catharsis.

The mainstream media praised Nettelhorst for fighting the good fight. “This is about kids, not about politics or gay marriage,” a full-page Chicago Sun-Times editorial declared. “Whether you support gay marriage or not — and we do — these families are here, in our midst. They are our neighbors, our children’s classmates, and our co-workers’ children. Once we acknowledge that, it’s not a stretch to want to treat them with respect. This is how we change the world: one child at a time.”

When the Chicago Tribune ran a front-page story cheering our efforts, Nettelhorst landed on every hate blog in the country. We even had the “God Hates Fags” Phelps Clan up from Kansas protesting (yup, the same whackos behind the recent Supreme Court free speech ruling and Sarah Palin’s twitter gaffe de jour). Critics accused the school of corrupting innocent children, and using them as pawns in a decidedly liberal social agenda, all on the taxpayers’ dime, no less. The corner of Broadway and Melrose, in the heart of Chicago’s Boystown, had become a post-modern Sodom and Gomorra.

With all the hate mongers warning that our kids would be gunned down or turned into salt, it wasn’t long before some originally enthusiastic parents started to break ranks. Bravado wasn’t going to protect the children from a rifle-slinging lunatic. “Look, Jacqueline, I love whales, too,” one shaken friend reasoned, “But I’m not putting my daughter on a boat for Greenpeace.” Tempers flared and friendships strained as our happy kumbaya gesture turned deadly serious. Had hubris, heaps of press coverage, and 50 yards of recycled fabric shreds really put our kids in danger? Columbine, Santana, Virginia Tech, Anchorage, Essex, Lancaster, Newark, Portsmouth, Tacoma, Carlsbad, Placerville–how many tragic examples did we need?

When I got a threatening phone call at home, I nearly peed in my pants. At that moment, our struggle became crystal clear: it didn’t matter where this street fight was taking place — this was the nonsense we were up against. If our school community couldn’t take a stand against discrimination, what kind of example were we setting? If our kids learned arithmetic at school, but had no idea what one plus one really equaled, what lessons were we teaching them?

And, so it was, that on a sun-soaked summer afternoon, 200 Nettelhorst families — both gay and straight — marched in the parade; in fact, we led it. The outpouring of support from the 140,000-strong crowd was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It was as if we were taking away generations of hurt, a surreal-rainbow-glitter-therapeutic coronation.

“It takes real courage to stand tall against bigotry,” said our State Representative Sara Feigenholtz, “While I’ve been fighting tirelessly for basic human rights legislation in Springfield for years, what’s incredible is that these children have shown us what it truly means to value equality, dignity, and each other.” Chicago’s first openly gay Alderman, Tom Tunney, also marched in the parade proudly wearing his Nettelhorst Pride t-shirt. “Time will show,” he professed, “on this day, Nettelhorst was on the right side of history.”

Well, our representatives must have been clairvoyant: the following year, Nettelhorst marched in the Parade once again, only this time, we marched with employees from U.S. Cellular, another elementary school, and the openly gay Chicago Public Schools’ CEO, Ron Huberman, pushing his baby in a stroller; flanked by the Governor, and the Chicago Blackhawks, hoisting aloft their hard-earned Stanley Cup. In what seemed impossible just twelve months earlier, the establishment stood with our families to say, out loud, in one strong voice: Every school should be a safe place to learn, where all kids feel free to be wholly themselves.

President Obama is one of the nearly 10,000 contributors to the It Gets Better Project, the brainchild of syndicated columnist and author Dan Savage, and his partner Terry Miller. “We need to dispel this myth that bullying is a just normal right of passage; that it’s some inevitable part of growing up. It’s not,” the President says in his video. “We have an obligation to insure that our schools are safe for all of our kids.” Hopefully, the upcoming White House Conference on Bullying Prevention will help give that sentiment some real teeth.

Of course, It Gets Better won’t solve the problem of bullying overnight. “But while we work to make our schools safer,” insists Savage, “the book’s message of hope — from celebrities, politicians, artists, authors, athletes, and everyday people — can help kids who are suffering right now.”

How can you help? If a copy of It Gets Better could find a home in every school library in America, think how many teachers, administrators and parents would have the tools they need to improve their school’s climate. Imagine how many students, who might not have access to YouTube, could begin to envision a brighter future for themselves as openly gay adults–a life filled with joy, family, and love.

It can start getting better for kids, right here, right now, if adults will it to be so.


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