Omar Currie, a former third-grade teacher at Efland Cheeks Elementary School, didn't think he was doing something brave when he read a children's book that features a relationship between two men to his class.
"For me it just seemed natural," he said. "It never crossed my mind to think that I was doing something brave."
Currie, who is gay, read the book "King and King" to his class at the end of April and faced backlash from some parents of his students over the appropriateness of the selection. He has since resigned from his position at the school, and he will be teaching fourth-graders at John Adams Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., in the fall.
On Wednesday evening, Currie joined a panel discussion at the Chapel Hill Public Library about the book and the ways teachers can introduce concepts like diversity to their classrooms. The panel is the first in a series called Between the Lines, where topics that are popular among the community will be discussed in a public forum.
"We thought that this would be a great topic to get this series started," said Susan Brown, director of the library.
Brown said libraries are a place where community members can gather to learn about and discuss controversial issues.
"They're a safe place to come and talk about things," she said.
Currie was joined on the panel by Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt; Kate Gallagher, a researcher in early childhood education at UNC's Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute; and Brian Sturm, an expert on children's literature from UNC's School of Information and Library Science.
Currie decided to read the book to his class after a student was bullied for acting in a feminine way.
"He was really excited that I read the book," Currie said. "He is very sassy. He definitely has a mouth on him."
The book was meant to teach the class about respect and tolerance. And it seemed to work.
"The bullying issue stopped from then," Currie said.
During the discussion, Kleinschmidt said he felt that the book's story is more or less traditional.
"It's a book that's a typical pattern — entering a relationship or picking someone to love," he said.
But some parents called Currie after he read the book and said they wished he would have given them prior notice.
"I explained to that parent that I wouldn't have sought their permission before reading anything else in the classroom," he said.
"I feel like I was doing what I was trained to do. We were supposed to read books that reflected diversity, and we were supposed to do that without apology."
Currie said he didn't feel supported by many members of the school's administration.
"It was easier to throw me under the bus than to have to stand beside me," he said.
Many of the few LGBT children's books are self-published, Sturm said during the discussion.
"The publishing industry has a lot to do to address the disparities in children's literature," he said. "It's still predominately white; it's still predominately male."
Gallagher said it was important to incorporate lessons on diversity and cultural differences into early childhood education.
"Children need to learn about differences and that some people don't like those differences," she said. "The world that our children are now going into is changing constantly."
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