Rainbow Badge of Courage
By Janet Gilbert
I read “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” in ninth grade. Even in 1973, there was an inordinate amount of interest in a couple of paragraphs from her Jan. 6, 1944 entry, where Anne writes about her emerging sexual feelings.
In 2007 the book is part of the sixth-grade “gifted and talented” curriculum in Howard County, Md. I often thought it was introduced too early: While many adolescents have the intellectual aptitude for the material, few have the emotional maturity. Sure enough, my two older children came home with stories of students’ comments about Anne Frank being “gay.”
But then, near the end of sixth grade, my youngest son received the following inventive English assignment: “Generate a symbol that represents one of your qualities ... something you cannot change (like Anne’s Jewish faith). Create a wearable badge/symbol for this personal feature. Wear the badge for four consecutive school days. Record what happens to you ... in a journal.”
I was absolutely terrified to learn of my son’s approach. “I’m thinking about making a badge that says ‘Pro Gay Rights,’” he said.
After years of eschewing narrow-mindedness, I’m embarrassed to admit I tried to talk him out of it. “Why not, ‘My hair is unruly?’” I suggested. At our public middle school, the epithet hurled most frequently and viciously among boys is “you’re gay.”
“You’re going to face a lot of ridicule,” I warned. “I know,” he said. He worked on the badge - with a rainbow drawn on it - and wore it to school the next day. The following are excerpts from his journal: Intro: My badge is about a trait that raises a lot of controversy in middle school ... of course I knew I would have to face the grim sea that is called “teasing” but it also might bring out a side of people I don’t know. I have always been for gay marriage and gay rights in general, so I thought it might be different if I showed that part of me.”
5/30/06: Today was quite interesting. It was the first day of wearing my badge. Surprisingly, reactions started the moment I came into school. ... “Hey, what’s with the badge?”... “So you’re gay?” “No, I just support them,” I answered, as I thought “This is going to be a long four days.”
A few more of these encounters happened throughout the day, some worse, some better, some coming from my friends as well. People stopped talking to my face and started talking to my badge. But a few people supported me, saying I was doing the right thing. Those people kept me going.
5/31/06: Another day has passed ... I have found the ability to debate well. A few people believe strongly that I am wrong and try to bring religion to the table, but I have yet to find someone who can give me a single reason why. But the thing that really threw me off was that a kid my family has known since we moved here criticized me and spread gossip about my badge, and by the end of the day, he got a kid to call me “the gay guy.” The words had no effect on me, but the thought of someone close to our family doing that makes my blood boil. I guess popularity can really change a person.
6/2/06: The surprise about my badge has finally dissipated ... frankly, I was glad! ... With every negative comment, the small, plastic covered piece of paper seemed to grow heavier and heavier, until I could barely walk. But always, just when I was beginning to give up, a friend would pass by and reassure me, and my load grew lighter than ever.
Afterward: After these fours days I’m pretty sure I can handle any type of verbal abuse. I have taken blows left and right from most kids, but I ignored them and, soon enough, it seemed like an everyday conversation. The thing is I can’t help but notice how easy my experience was compared to Anne’s. First, my badge just entitled me to four days of teasing: hers kept her from driving, staying out late, and a lot more. Also, for me, bad remarks came from bullies ... I can’t imagine an entire army after you. But all in all, this experience was pretty tough, and a little bit frustrating.
It took the insight of someone precisely Anne’s age to convince me that “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” belongs in the sixth-grade curriculum. In the margins of my son’s journal, his teacher wrote “You were quite brave - I respect your courage.”
What if we all abandoned fear, and moved forward with courage to accept those who are different? It’s a question central to Anne’s diary, and today’s headlines, a fitting one as we mark Kristallnacht this week.
Janet Gilbert writes the weekly humor column for the Howard County Section of The Baltimore Sun.
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