Reading, Writing, and Righteousness


In the first few weeks of school, my seven-year-old twice came home with news that gave me pause. The first time, he announced that his class had practiced "locking down," in case there was an intruder in the school. The second time, he brought home a sealed envelope and stood anxiously by as I opened it.

The letter from his teacher said that the class had read a series of books on different kinds of families. The class was talking about one of the stories, Asha's Mums, about a girl who has two mothers, when the teacher told them he was gay and was in the process of adopting a child with his partner. The kids' reactions varied, the teacher wrote; some were disrespectful and we might expect to hear about it at home.

When I was done reading, my son asked if he could see the letter. When he was done, I asked him what he thought. It came out in a second-grader's convoluted way, but what he thought was that it was suddenly interesting that his Uncle Randy and I are adopted, and that he had come to suspect that being adopted might bear some relationship to the other family oddity he's never asked about, that Uncle Randy has brown skin and I don't.

My stomach rolled. We were headed toward the sticky stuff at the bottom of the parental toy chest: Where do families get babies, anyhow, and if Grandma got you at the Indianapolis airport, where did you get me? You could see the inevitable question forming in his brain, but then he must have decided he's not ready to know, because he changed the subject.

My son hasn't brought it up again, but in the last few days the episode has taken on a life of its own. Two of the mothers of his classmates complained to the principal of the school, Interdistrict Downtown School in Minneapolis, and asked to have their children moved to another class. She demurred, and a media maelstrom was born, complete with a protest composed mostly of people school staffers say they have never seen before. Katherine Kersten weighed in on the saga last week, implying in a virtually context-free column that there was some "real irony" involved—presumably because the two angry mothers, whom she describes as "a group," are African American.

Let's pass over Kersten's curious sense of irony and move to the monster in the closet. Was it Freud who said all children fantasize about the act of their creation? Certainly we all can remember wondering what those grownups were doing in the next room, and how it would make us feel to do it. Because my boy keeps tiptoeing up to the keyhole, so to speak, I haven't had to frame The Talk. But it looms, and I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that after we grow up, find out, and procreate (or adopt), we all also feel every bit as squeamish and awkward and small and childlike when junior finally does ask about Tab A and Slot B. And that's really the problem here, isn't it?

As it happens, I agree with Kersten on two points: Adults shouldn't project their agendas onto children, and parents have a right to frame The Talk as they see fit. But I also happen to think that it's a parent's place to answer a kid's questions about the things he sees and hears out in the world, and if you think you're going to get out of this part of the job by imposing a Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy on teachers, your head is firmly up Slot B.

Here are a few things not noted by any of the news stories on this I've seen. The teacher did not gather everyone around for a coming-out session; he answered a question honestly. The books were written with the express purpose of helping kids learn to respect each other; other titles in the series are about adopted families, single parents, foster parents, and so on. The parents of the other 21 kids in the class aren't angry. Several have expressed gratitude that their children came home talking about how it turns out they're not the only ones whose family somehow looks a little sub-nuclear.

If you've spent any time at all watching the Lord of the Flies atmosphere on the playground at recess, you know kids are quick to use differences to bully one another. And it's a quick hop from bullying to the other news from school that made my stomach tighten: That the air-raid drills of yore have been replaced with instruction on responding to an armed intruder. The intruders often seem to have been the targets of the bullies, kids who were forced to ride it out alone.

And have you seen the statistics for suicide among gay teens?

My son's teacher told the truth in an appropriate context. In doing so, he taught his class a lesson in self-respect. And while the grownups may still have their knickers in a twist, the second-graders have moved on to liquids, solids, and gases.