By Lauren M. Johnson, CNN
Updated: Sat, 18 May 2019 19:16:13 GMT
In middle school, it's hard to be different. It's even harder if a student identifies as LGBTQ.
This week, a couple of teachers at Central Park School for Children in Durham, North Carolina, decided to enlist the help of some local drag queens to celebrate the unique differences between the school's students.
Taylor Schmidt, an eighth-grade teacher at the school, and his colleague, Schara Brooks, saw the impact bullying and other negative behavior was having on students in their school who identify as LGBTQ. They said students were even leaving the school because of some of their experiences. In December, the pair pitched a schoolwide event to help students understand what it means to be different.
"Our drive was to remove barriers to success, belonging and the ability to thrive for all students," Schmidt said. "It called for a hard look at the roots of these behaviors and intentional actions to liberate not just the bullied from oppressive acts, but the bully from the oppressive root causes of their actions."
Pride and Liberation
Thus, the Pride and Liberation Event was born, and with it the styling of social activists and drag queens of color Vivica C. Coxx and Stormie Daie of the House of Coxx.
Schmidt described the event as a partnership but said he followed the lead of the performers.
"They have been the ones sticking their neck out for years to do this kind of work on behalf of the community. They create spaces that are free for everyone ... by fully recognizing every aspect of identity."
The House of Coxx drag house has been an advocate for social and racial issues in the Durham area for years. They are often asked to do events around the community advocating for racial and social justice, but for Vivica and Stormie, the idea of a middle school wanting to bring them in to be celebrated was a new one.
Being different is OK
Both performers talked about their experiences in middle school and not being accepted. They said it's important to celebrate individual differences -- and to start that idea in the trenches of middle school.
"I thought they must be feeling so empowered to see someone being themselves on stage," Vivica told CNN about the students. "Visibility matters, and seeing a queer person of color on stage saying 'this is me' has an impact that no one can really measure."
Stormie said she hoped the children would take the event to heart.
"You hope that the children listen to this," she said, "so that they know we didn't have this when we were growing up. We weren't seeing people like us being celebrated."
The event lasted two hours and featured a panel with a city council member, a performance by the school's step team and a drag show. VIvica said the school was intentional about the message.
"Central Park didn't water it down, but they made it age-appropriate to give a depth to social justice and activism, which is the core of the queer experience."
Afterward, students met the performers and showered them with hugs and accolades.
"It was so beautiful and so well received," she said. "I am still overwhelmed. It was ridiculously good."
Stormie, a former teacher, said the smiles and buzz let her know it was a step forward for Central Park. She said she left teaching because of fear of how she would be perceived, so it was refreshing to be back in the world of education as her true self.
The tone is changed
Students were allowed to opt out of the event, but the school says most decided to attend. Schmidt said it has changed the tone in the classroom.
He specifically pointed out an eighth-grader named Katya, who told CNN how the day made her feel.
"This event felt extremely important to me as a student and as a member of the LGBT community," she said. "I am so proud of my school for making such huge steps to make Central Park a safe, intersectional space. There have been many places I feel that I don't belong and this celebration has helped to make Central Park not one of them."
Getting other schools involved
Schmidt said organizing the event was daunting because he didn't know how it would be received -- but he encourages other schools to plan something similar.
"If schools are nervous about doing the work of Pride and Liberation, we get it ... but what to us seems daring, to our LGBTQ+ students could be lifesaving. Public school educators ultimately teach for liberation -- that's the job."
Most of the credit, Schmidt said, goes to the House of Coxx for their inspiration and trailblazing spirit.
"They could never see the impact of how far their work has led."