What do you get when you put a middle schooler, a third-grader, a teacher and a drag queen in a classroom together?
Well, that depends on the school.
At The Studio School, where Mr. Stuart teaches 3rd-graders by day and entertains adults (as Shirley Delta Blow) by night, you get glitter with a dash of kindness. But at Rocky Top Middle School where Zach Sullivan recently attended career day as drag queen Jessica L’Whor, all that glitters was hardly gold.
Both schools are in the Adams 12 Five Star School district, and they’ve each made the news for reasons that are different, yet similar.
Last spring you may have seen the 9News story featuring Mr. Stuart, who inspires students to be who they are while weaving in messages of kindness and acceptance throughout his lessons. He does the same leading Drag Queen Story Time for children at local bookstores throughout the Denver metro area.
This week you’ve likely heard about Zach Sullivan, aka Jessica L’Whor, who shared similar messages around anti-bullying while reading from the book Horrible Harry at Rocky Top’s career day.
In a letter to parents following career day, the principal at Rocky Top explained that Zach, who appeared as Ms. Jessica to students, “used the text to illustrate the damage bullies can do, the need to always put kindness and acceptance at the forefront, and the shortsightedness of judging a book by its cover.”
So why all the uproar from parents at Rocky Top?
Listen, we’re not exactly comparing apples to apples here. Mr. Stuart does not teach math dressed as Shirley Delta Blow, although parents know they can find her after school at the local bookstore and even later at the Clocktower Cabaret. Zach, however, did present himself to students in full drag as Ms. Jessica and without parents’ prior knowledge.
Parents absolutely deserve to know who and what their kids are learning from and about in school, if for no other reason then to have an opportunity to speak with them on their own terms.
At this point, no one can change the fact that Ms. Jessica spoke at career day. But we do have an opportunity to talk about her message of inclusion and acceptance, because for many students, school has become an uncomfortable and downright scary place.
At the start of the school year, a 9-year old boy in Denver committed suicide after being bullied for being gay.
In Broomfield, the mother of a student with a disability recently had to get a restraining order against a student who was bullying her daughter.
And up until this year, the number one reason students contacted Safe2Tell was to report incidents of bullying. It’s now second to threats of suicide.
Every day students are being targeted, shunned and made to feel ashamed because of their differences. By including Ms. Jessica as a guest for career day, the school told students that the diversity within their community matters. And Ms. Jessica told students that they matter, too.
Now, it’s not surprising that some parents are more comfortable with these messages coming from someone who appears more traditional in form like Mr. Stuart or perhaps when they’ve made a conscious choice to let their kids read with Shirley Delta Blow at a bookstore.
And that’s exactly why the principal at Rocky Top has committed to share the career day guest list with parents next time.
But here’s the thing about time…it’s limited. We can’t turn it back and there’s no guarantee of it tomorrow. So if there’s one thing we can take from Ms. Jessica’s visit, it’s an opportunity to talk about some of the things that are significantly affecting kids right now. More and more kids today are struggling with who they are, who their peers think they should be, and how on earth they could matter to anyone. Ms. Jessica reminded them that they each have value and deserve to be treated with kindness. And while some might disapprove of the messenger, the message itself made a positive impact on at least one student who had this to say: “I’m gay in school and I get bullied every week and I don’t know what to do and just talking to you helped me realize that I can still be me and still be happy.”
That’s gotta count for something, right?
If anything, that one student highlights the idea that “everyone is fighting a hard battle.” That’s why Plato preceded that quote with two words: “Be kind.”
Isn’t that an important lesson for our kids…and everyone, whether you’re a teacher…a drag queen or…both?
Photo Credit: KRDO.com