Omar Currie says he didn’t always want to be a teacher.
He wanted to be trauma surgeon.
“I spent my (childhood) years cutting up my sister’s baby dolls,” he said. “I decided I was going to Johns Hopkins when I was 6 years old.”
But after his high school junior year, a visiting sociologist told the 15 black teens among the 400 students in the Governors School summer program that the only reason they were there was because they knew how to play the game. He challenged them to go back to their schools and figure out how to help those left behind.
Currie decided to teach. He enrolled in the N.C. Teaching Fellows program, agreeing to teach in North Carolina for four years in return for $26,000 in tuition remission.
“No one ever thought I would stick with it,” he said.
Now, wrapping up his second year teaching third grade at Efland-Cheeks Elementary School, Currie says he plans to stick with teaching. Just not at the rural Orange County school, where he says he lacks his administrators’ support.
Currie spoke about his life, teaching and the “King & King” controversy. Here are excerpts from the conversation.
Do you feel vindicated?
Omar Currie: I’m not so sure. I get the impression that the decision was made the way it was made because people want it to go away and not because that’s the way people actually feel. It would have been one thing for the decision to come out and say I was justified in reading the book, (that) the benefits of reading a book like that starts the framework for preventing bullying. But then this decision comes out and I get called in by my administrator to say I didn’t respond correctly to the bullying issues. They wanted specific dates of all the bullying that had taken place in my classroom. I stopped the meeting and said I wasn’t going to be able to go forward without representation because the questions were coming quick and I felt like I was being attacked.
Being vindicated? I’m glad the book’s going to be in place. I don’t think the book’s ever going to be read again. If this is how they’re going to respond after saying it’s OK to read the book, what teacher’s going to pick up the book and actually read it?
Let’s go back to the day. What happened that day?
Currie: I took my kids to PE. I came back (later) and picked them up. They (a boy and a girl) shared with me a kid had been called gay in derogatory way. The girl was upset because she told them, ‘We don’t do that in Mr. Currie’s class,’ and she got yelled at. They were crying when I picked them up.
You’ve said the boy acts somewhat effeminate. What do you mean?
Currie: He has a large personality. He has a lisp at times. He has a lot of hip movement when he walks. And he’s very, very sassy.
Where are his parents in all this?
Currie: I’ve made a point to really try to keep his parents out of it to protect him. I feel if parents came forward and made a statement then people would know who he is and that could escalate things really quickly for him, and I don’t think that’s right for a third-grader.
So you pick them up, and you do what?
Currie: I’m obviously upset that this is happening and I said how are we going to deal with this situation. I decided I was going to read a book and talk about this bullying issue. I went back and said, “Oh I should read ‘King & King’ because we were working with fairy tales, fables.” I called our media coordinator and asked her if she had a copy of the book. She said she didn’t but she was really excited I was going to read the book. She said Meg (Goodhand, the assistant principal) had two copies.
A lot of kids, when two men kiss, when anybody kisses, they go eew. What kind of reactions did they have to the book?
Currie: I didn’t originally show the page when they kiss, because they don’t actually kiss in the story. The story ends, and the last page is the picture of the two princes kissing (with a red heart over their lips.) So once I got to the last page I stopped. Because at the point, one of the kids said he was feeling uncomfortable. He said, ‘What just happened?’ I said, ‘Two princes married.’ He said, ‘That makes me feel uncomfortable.’ I said, ‘It’s OK to feel uncomfortable when you’re presented with new things, but what is the moral?’
What did the class say the moral was?
Currie: To treat everybody the same. They can find a million and one morals about the book. There was one girl who said you shouldn’t be mean to be people. Somebody said you should listen to your parents.
After that you’ve said the bullying stopped.
Currie: We have not had an issue with it.
Did you get any reaction from the boy?
Currie: Yeah, he was really excited. From that point we go to small group reading. He asked to take the book and I gave it to him.
One of the questions that’s been raised is why didn’t you choose a book that directly addresses bullying?
Currie: Good question. It made sense to me to choose a book that addressed the issue that he was being bullied about. They were bullying him because they perceived him to be a certain way. So let’s have a conversation about what you perceive. That made more sense to me than to read a book about bullying. I mean, like “Mean Jean the Recess Queen.” I’ve read that book a million times and it has not stopped my issues on the playground at all, quite honestly.
Did you have any conversations when you came to the school about being openly gay?
Currie: I did with my former administrator. (Currie was hired by the previous principal.) I asked: ‘Anybody that has a conversation with me for more than five minutes will know that I’m gay. What is going to be your response when the first person comes and wants to remove their kid from my class because I’m gay.’ And she said, ‘It’s as simple as I don’t remove kids because of that reason. I believe in your ability to teach and that’s the reason you teach at the school.’
And has that ever happened at Efland?
Currie: No. I actually had a parent move a kid into my class because she wasn’t happy with the teacher she had.
Why did you want to teach in a rural school?
Currie: Growing up in a rural school I was always aware that I was getting a subpar education. My cousins lived in Fayetteville, which is a big city compared to St. Pauls. The opportunities they had in their school were so different from the opportunities we had in our school, and we were not even 40 minutes apart. They got to do a lot of things my brother and I didn’t get to do, and we worked a lot harder than they did. And I didn’t think that was right.
That was one piece. And then those first two years of Teaching Fellows when we talked about equity in education, you really see that rural education has been left behind. Urban education dominates the conversation. There’s not a lot of money funneled into rural schools, and it’s really hard to get teachers to teach in rural schools, especially young teachers.
What are the parents like?
Currie: From the moment I got to Efland I feel the parents were supportive. A lot of parents wanted me because I’m a man and they wanted their kids to have a male teacher.
You said within five minutes after talking to you people know you’re gay. Why?
Currie: I think people perceive anyone who doesn’t fit these particular modes of masculinity (to be gay). I talk a lot with my hands. My hands dip a lot. My voice. And in my walk, I think definitely my walk. (Laughs) I know my walk for sure because I remember my dad trying to teach me to walk more masculine. More like a man. It didn’t work.
What would anyone who knows you as a teacher say about you as a teacher?
Currie: They would know that every single decision is based on what is best for my kids, not what is best for Omar Currie. I am a champion for my kids. I fight tooth and nail for every single thing that my kids need.
Can a teacher be an activist? (Currie and Goodhand have been criticized for speaking at a conference for LGBT activists, which sought in part to challenge ‘the heteronormative culture in schools.’)
Currie: Yes, I think you should be. You have a group of students in your classroom. You leave a lasting impact and a lasting impression on them. It is important that you are championing the rights of those kids and the future of those kids. I think it’s important that you’re an activist and not just about things like that, but in general for the teaching profession and your rights as a teacher.
What if the cause your advancing is not shared by the school community or by some people in the school community?
Currie: That’s difficult, and I don’t know what my response is to that off the top of my head.
Do you think what you did in the classroom (reading ‘King & King’) is an example of your being an activist?
Currie: No. I think it was a sign of a teacher who loves his kids and would do anything for them and did what he felt was best in that situation. It can be analyzed up one side and down the other. I welcome the day that my administration sits down with me and has a conversation about the decision I made, this is what you did, this is what you might do next time. But to say I should have reported it and nothing should have happened? We should criticize instructional decisions after the fact. But what we shouldn’t do is say nothing should have happened. Because that’s what would have happened if I hadn’t done anything.
So you still haven’t had that conversation about what you might do differently next time?
Currie: No. They’re not interested in having a conversation with me.
So that night (the second public hearing about the book) when you were talking about safety, you said you were told maybe in a progressive school district you could read the book but in Efland ‘we have to go slow,’ and you said you could not do that, you could not do anything that would compromise the safety of your students. How much of that was because of your experience growing up?
Currie: I would say quite a bit of it. I think one of the things about being a teacher is you get to stop and think and reflect on some of the decisions your teachers made. I don’t understand the decisions they made when I was being bullied. They did nothing.
How were you bullied in school?
Currie: I was a good student, and I was called a faggot every single day of middle school. Every single day. I was called on more than one occasion that I was acting white. I was picked on a lot because of my voice and the way that I sound when I talk, especially back then. And then just my interests in general. I was one of the few African-American people in the AIG program. I was one of the few African-American people in the band program. There just weren’t a lot of people who looked like me in those circles. They never said anything.
Did they hear it?
Did you ever ask for help?
Currie: Because why should I have had to ask for help? You see that I need help. You should be able to help.
You said you were angry that night (of the hearing). Is that anger from when you were a kid?
Currie: I think that could be a piece of that.
So what were the other pieces?
Currie: My kids. People say our kids can’t engage, that they can have conversations, that they can’t have the same opportunities as everyone else, that there are things they can’t have. Because it’s Efland. And our administration is saying the same thing. And that sticks with kids. I feel like half the battle that I fight is convincing my kids that they can do, (that they can be successful). And kids are very smart. You don’t have to tell them, ‘You can’t do,’ for them to know you’re telling them they can’t do.
How hard would it be to find another job?
Currie: I don’t know.
But you have to (continue teaching in North Carolina for two more years) for the purposes of your fellowship. If you don’t stay in North Carolina, you have to pay that $26,000 back?
Currie: I guess I’m down to $13,000 now, having taught two years now
What do you want to do?