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Derek Elmer

June 1997

Elementary Wisdom

I snatched a copy of The Ann Arbor News from the little newsstand inside my favorite drug store in town (yes I have one) and headed out with two bottles of my favorite soda (Faygo). I had to meet a friend for dinner so I didn't get a chance to read the paper until a day later, which is pretty common for me; and perhaps the main reason I don't subscribe to one. Now, I tend to think of myself as a reasonably educated guy. I mean, for fun, I'm currently re-reading Homer's "Odyssey," and a book comparing anthropological case studies among several world cultures. But I just cant resist a good "Dear Abby" column. She's just so darn straight forward, that her down-home matter-of-factness keeps her readers coming back for more. God bless her.

So, I'm flipping through the paper, past the "local" section, past the "business" section on to the "entertainment" section. I turn to where her column is...page D2. No sooner do I get the paper situated for reading comfort, than I notice the headline at the top of the page screaming: "Adopted son of gay dad is tired of hearing hurtful comments." So, naturally I dove right into her current column. The letter which this headline made mention of came from an 11 year-old boy who asks Dear Abby (very politely) to "make people think twice before they say hurtful things to people like [him]." He described how his father adopted him because his mother was a drug addict. By the time this boy was four, his father had fallen in love with another man. Since then, this 11 year-old boy, his dad and his dad's lover lived together as a family. In his letter, this 11 year-old countered many of the attacks one may commonly expect to hear from bigots, the extreme religious right...whatever. He laid out very clear reasoning why it doesn't matter who you fall in love with. As long as you have the ability to love another person, what should it matter who you choose to love, he reasoned. Pretty wise advice (I think) from someone who is just starting out in life.

However, what struck me as I continued to read through his letter was this: "The reason I am writing is for all the people who say bad things about my dad and me." He goes on to say, "It's usually not the kids at school, it's their parents and some of my teachers." This just made me stop and think about the millions of stupid people parading around as intelligent adults. So, I threw "Dear Abby" aside and headed to my computer to write this. As I did, I mumbled about how ironic this was since I'd just seen Debra Chasnoff and Helen Cohen's film, "It's Elementary -- Talking about Gay Issues in School," not two weeks earlier.

I had the chance to see this documentary when it came to the San Francisco International Film Festival a few weeks ago. It's not the first time this film has been seen in the Bay Area since it opened last fall, but it was the first time I had the chance to see it. I have to say, it's quite humbling to hear eight- and nine-year-olds discuss something as controversial as homosexuality with views that haven't yet become clouded with various political agendas. I guess their world philosophy is still pretty simple to them-- everyone deserves to be respected.

"It's Elementary" profiles four different school districts in New York, Massachusetts, Wisconsin and California. Admittedly, these districts are more progressive than most. However, as Chasnoff pointed out after the screening, the hard part of this project wasn't finding school districts that incorporate lessons about gay-themed issues into classroom discussion, but rather finding districts willing to go on camera and talk about these multicultural programs. While this trend may be positive, it is also relatively new, and many administrators in various school districts still fear backlash from their community for encompassing all forms of discrimination when discussing tolerance toward others.

I suppose the fear of "communal" retribution is justified, since many people still falsely believe there are ways of "recruiting" people into the homosexual lifestyle, but of course that's not what these lessons are about at all. If anything, the film focused on how the profiled districts were successful programs because of teacher sensitivity toward this controversial material. It was interesting to watch the teacher's role change as the students got older. During grade school, the main goal of incorporating gay and lesbian issues into multicultural lessons is to convey why a tolerance of individual differences is both necessary and important. Toward the high school years, as attitudes become firmly set and harder to change, the teacher's role shifts from fostering an already present tolerant attitude to creating it.

Many people believe that children shouldn't be exposed to these "sensitive" matters at such early ages. But, judging from our young friend from the "Dear Abby" column, I'd say they're already being exposed. (Okay, I knew that before I read "Dear Abby" in today's paper.) And one doesn't even have to pick up a newspaper to find this out, just walk through the local school yard (although reading the paper once in a while couldn't hurt). But it's true, kids are being exposed to many different lifestyles from the time they sit down to watch "Sesame Street." Yes, children today have a lot of questions they may not have had 50 years ago, but the face of our society is changing. Turn to any given media outlet for a day to have that suspicion confirmed. Among other things...such as gratuitous violence, seen on every major network during prime time viewing, many kids are exposed to sex-related topics at very young ages. So, with that exposure, comes opinions, and prejudices, at much earlier ages today than 50, 40 or even 20 years ago. During a scene in "It's Elementary," a teacher in New York asked her grade school-aged students to write down at least 20 words that came to mind when she said the word "gay." None of them had much trouble coming up with seemingly endless lists of what that word meant to them, and that shouldn't surprise anyone rearing children today ...but, of course, it does.

According to Debra Chasnoff, their film began as an instructional video to give teachers an idea of appropriate ways to include many gay-related issues into multicultural lessons taught in the classroom. What it grew into is something that has already inspired many people, not only on the west coast, but across the country. Apparently demand for this film continues to grow as more school districts hear of the changing face of education in our classrooms. So, my thrift-store hat goes off to people like "Happily Adopted in Orlando, Fla." and Debra Chasnoff and Helen Cohen. In their own rite, all three are educating people about the realities our culture must embrace if we're to move forward into the future together.

So, perhaps that's why I liked this film, and admire "Happily Adopted." It's good to know there are wise people out there. I just find it ironic the majority of this wisdom seems to come from people under the age of 12, who are supposedly "too young" to know what's going on in the world around them. That doesn't speak too highly of today's adults. But if these children are "tomorrow's leaders" then it gives me a bit more hope than I usually have for society. Even if these kids can't fight off many negative attitudes created by the adult world around them, they're still more enlightened than I or any of my friends were at that age. I suppose I'll read the rest of yesterday's paper now.

I wonder what Ms. Manners would have to say about this.


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