Youth and innocence – two things that go together like peanut butter and jelly, peas and carrots, Cephus and Reesie. We generally seek to prolong the innocence of youth for as long as possible, shielding our children from sights, sounds and experiences that might force them to grow up too quickly, shattering their idyllic and tender worlds. After 30 years on this Earth and a childhood that was anything but innocent, I understand this and support it to an extent. However, there’s a difference between stalling the harsh realities of adulthood and sheltering kids from, oh, I don’t know, the fact that gay people exist?
Last week, a fifth-grader by the name of Kameron Slade, read a speech about same-sex marriage and tolerance during a special assembly held at his school. By itself, that sounds pretty cool – a 10-year-old speaking about as eloquently as a 10-year-old could be expected on the topics of tolerance, equality, and understanding for your fellow (wo)man. This kid took a very timely issue that played out in a major way in his hometown, and used his words to express his feelings about it all. Yes, pretty cool except for the fact that this “special assembly” was a consolation prize of sorts since Kameron’s principal, Beryl Bailey, banned the boy from giving his speech in a school-wide contest – a contest he earned entry to by winning his classroom’s competition.
According to Bailey, the subject matter of Kameron’s speech was “inappropriate” and unless he wrote another speech, he would be banned from reciting it. As far as I can tell, Kameron seems like a sweetheart who really wanted to show off his skills and participate in the competition, so he changed his topic to something more acceptable for 10-year-old ears – animal cruelty (really). Only then was he given the green light to resume his place in the competition. I don’t know about you, but just the idea of talking to fifth-graders about cute baby seals getting clubbed or downy-soft kittens being left to starve sounds pretty harsh to me.
When I first saw this story reported on NY1, I was really upset. First, I was sad for Kameron who was taught a crappy lesson about speaking one’s mind and earning one’s place through hard work. Kameron’s speech was the best in his class but he wasn’t able to see it through to completion by stacking it up against the other top essays in his school. Secondly, I’m saddened that we’re still positioning homosexuality as perverted, dirty, and too “adult” for children to even contemplate. Interviewing several parents, NY1 reported that while they support gay marriage, parents don’t believe that the subject is appropriate for school. For most respondents, kids are too young to hear about same-sex marriage and topics like this should be discussed at home.
I’m sorry, but what exactly needs to be discussed at home? That there are gay people in this world? That it’s still an open question in our country whether they should be afforded the same rights as anyone else? Because that’s what little Kameron wanted to say in his speech. Indeed Kameron writes,
Some adults may feel uncomfortable and think it’s inappropriate to talk about this to children. I think adults must realize that as children get older, they become aware of these mature issues that are going on in the world. If children read or watch the news, they can learn about things like same-gender marriage. So what’s the point in trying to hide it?
Word. It’s not like the kid was going on at length about sexual topics, which is often considered taboo even for the innocent ears of high school students (yeah, right), but that’s where the problem lies. People too often see homosexuality as an identity wholly defined by sex and depending on your cultural, political, moral, and religious views, you might view that sexual preference as perverted, shameful and therefore unfit for the ears of babes. I learned about slavery in elementary school. We discussed the first Iraq war. We sang songs in music class about witches and ghosts. I’m sure if you ask around, you’ll find people opposed to any one of those things being discussed with children outside of the home but most of us would say they’re overreacting. However, it’s still okay to pretend that gay people aren’t here, that they’re not the parents of your kids’ classmates, or the teachers who care for them all day long.
While I hope he learned something valuable about being flexible, working on the fly, and rolling with the punches, I’m afraid that those other lessons took a bigger chunk out of Kameron’s childhood innocence than the “inappropriate” same-sex marriage speech he deserved to give in that competition. Kameron didn’t win with his animal cruelty-themed rewrite and we’ll never know if his original speech would have earned him a victory but he did get to tell his story to a lot more people than would have filled his school’s auditorium. I’ll call that a win for Kameron but I fear it’s an “L” for the rest of us.