The following remarks were presented by Sarah Schneider Kavanagh, post-doctoral scholar, at the University of Washington College of Education's Read Aloud to End Homophobic Violence on June 25. Read a statement by UW College of Education Dean Mia Tuan on the June 12 Orlando shooting and homophobia in America.
Welcome fellow educators, community members and a special welcome to all the children here today! The College of Education is hosting this event as a way to combat our own sadness and grief. The kind of violence that the world witnessed in what happened in Orlando takes three ingredients. One ingredient is a gun. Another ingredient is a person who has profoundly lost his way. The last ingredient is the least tangible, but it’s the one that we, as educators, have the most power over. The last ingredient is a complicit society — a society that allows hatred to grow within those who are lost, one that nurtures hatred through seemingly small, everyday actions and inactions.
As educators, we have a lot of jobs: building number sense, building phonological awareness, building a classroom where “1, 2, 3” really does mean “eyes on me.” But our biggest job — the job that’s too easy to loose sight of in the nitty-gritty of the every-day — our biggest job is building society. We create the very first environments that students experience outside the home. The classrooms that we build are societies in miniature. They are the places where we give future citizens their first glimpses of what it looks like to live together in community, of what it looks like to work together to nurture love and drive out hate. In this effort we are some of our nation’s most important actors.
With this power comes responsibility. When it comes to the broad spectrum of gender and sexual identity that exists in our world, our power as educators to nurture love over hate has not yet been harnessed. Let’s take the case of reading. As educators, books are one of our most powerful tools for society building. One of the most important things that books teach us is empathy. I’m sure we all have stories from our own childhoods of books that tapped into feelings of raw compassion, identification, and even love for a character who was feeling pain, sadness, disappointment, or grief. Great teachers use books to help kids cultivate feelings of empathy, compassion, trust, and love for people and groups they do not know personally. These feelings are necessary ingredients for citizenship in a diverse democracy.
In our schools, however, we do not leverage the power of books to build a more loving world for queer people. We ask our kids to read hundreds of books every year for school. Of those hundreds of books, almost every, single one has openly straight characters — moms and dads, love interests, girly girls and rough and tumble boys. We learn from the first story circles on the preschool rug how to empathize with straight people and families and how to identify with people who conform to our society’s gender norms. On the other hand, most students read zero books with openly queer characters. Yes, out of the hundreds of books that the average American student reads each year — thousands when we look from preschool all the way through high school graduation — out of these thousands of books, for most American students not one of them includes an openly queer character. Looked at this way, homophobic violence is not an aberration. It’s not a surprise that no one could have predicted or interrupted.
And so we’re coming together today to make a commitment to build a different reality. One that starts on the rugs of preschools and that grows into the book club conversations in 4th grades. A reality in which young adolescents have access to queer coming of age stories in middle schools and in which our 11th graders are guided through literary analyses of the writings of James Baldwin, Walt Whitman, Virginia Wolff, and Audre Lorde. A reality in which, over time, through literature, we build in the next generation a deep empathy, a deep love, a deep care for their fellow citizens and for themselves.
Today we start this journey by doing something that is both extremely ordinary and extremely transgressive. We are here together in this very public space to read aloud children’s books that have loving and affirming depictions of queer people. As we read, we will imagine a different world for the next generation, one in which schools are places where all children are taught to empathize with queer people, families, and communities. For some children this will be an early education in loving themselves, for some it will be a lesson in loving others. For every child it will be an education in the most basic tenet of living in a diverse democracy: empathy.
I will kick off our reading by reading aloud from Dante and Aristotle Discover the Secrets of the Universe, a young adult book by Benjamin Alire Saenz. It is the love story of two Latino, teenage boys: Dante and Aristotle. We begin with this particular book to honor those we lost in Orlando. While we lost people of different races and genders, many of those that we lost were young, Latino men — only a handful of years older than the boys in this book. We read to honor their memories and to imagine the world that could have been for them and the world that still could be for us.