Lessons of Hate in the Bible Belt


Teaching
about intolerance in my high school Ethics class in a small town in
Oklahoma lead to a real life lesson for my students when I was forced
to resign for insubordination. Conflicts had escalated between the superintendent
of schools, my students and me over his biased decision to suspend my
class because I was teaching The Laramie Project.

I
had sought and received approval from the principal to teach the tragic
story of Matthew Shepard, a gay young man brutally murdered in Laramie,
Wyoming by two young men who "hated" gay people. I chose The
Laramie Project
because of its prevailing themes of intolerance
and hate crimes. The students and I studied the criminal investigation
and examined how different citizens of Laramie responded when they learned
Matthew’s murderers – Aaron "A.J." McKinney and Russell Henderson –
were life-long residents of the rural Wyoming community. One thing is
for sure, I did not use The Laramie Project to teach about gay
rights or to teach a unit on gay lifestyles, as the superintendent Mr.
Turlington has alleged. It is not necessary to teach about gay lifestyles
to my students’ generation. Several students have gay family members;
some of the family members have been in long-term, same-sex relationships.

In
truth, I was challenging them to examine where and how the two young
men – McKinney and Henderson – learned to hate; because hate, like
love, is learned behavior. I wanted them to understand where the lessons
of hate and intolerance are typically learned: parents, teachers, members
of the community, even in churches. I had hoped that by using The
Laramie Project
each student would examine their prejudices and
form healthier practices of tolerance, compassion and advocacy.

The
irony is that the students learned the lesson well, but not inside the
walls of a Grandfield High School classroom. They had their classroom
moved into the real world where they have experienced the real life
lessons of intolerance; witnessed acts promoted by homophobic fears
and ideology and yes, encountered hatred. Even in this small town of
1,100 people, it’s not all black and white. As one local resident
told Hunter Stuart, a video journalist, "We don’t live in the fifties
anymore." Another told him, "I know people who are gay. I don’t
like what they do, but I treat them with respect."

But as one thing led to another,
I asked a member of the school board to get involved. I was accused
of insubordination by Superintendent Turlington and felt I had no alternative
but to accept the superintendent’s agreement of resignation. As the
editor of the local newspaper admonished in an editorial "it was wrong
to question the decisions of your superiors."

I
am humbled by the fact that people across the country find the story
of my students and me important. The media has become our courtroom. 
The more people advocate for us against the injustices we have experienced,
the better I feel about losing my job. No matter where we live or go
to school we need to promote attitudes of compassion and tolerance for
all students, all people – gay or straight. I would be naïve to think
what has happened to my students and me is an isolated incident. Unfortunately,
those in charge of the school just don’t get it. I know any gay student
at Grandfield High School has been taught a dubious lesson. They have
learned they better keep quiet until they are old enough to leave town. 

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  • http://de.yahoo.com/ invalid-0

    My Dear Debra Taylor, Fight back and keep fighting. Those who forced you to resign are bigots and bullies and the worst of all bullies are the religious bullies. You taught Love, Respect and Compassion, while they, under the pretense of being religious teach nothing but hate, filth and lies. Our Lord rightfully labelled them: “Serpents and Hypocrites.” Fight back and meet their intolerence with
    even greater Intolerence, for they are nothing but cowards and will turn tail when challenged by common sense, dignity and decency – all of which they lack. You’d be surprised to know how many real Americans are with you. Get a lawyer and threaten to sue them for all their worth and watch them run for the hills. You have the Constitution of the United States backing you.

  • http://www.whenyoumarryinjune.blogspot.com invalid-0

    This is such a jaw-dropping story. I can’t believe that this superintendent still has his job. It’s up to you and your students to stick around and change things, and you’re already doing a great job by just speaking out.
    Is there write-in information you can post for people to send letters to the school board and editorial board (your local newspaper sounds like a joke) in protest?

  • scott-swenson

    Education comes in so many ways and your students are so fortunate to learn not only about these issues with you, but also about courage, taking a principled stand and fighting for what you believe. We all have teachers we remember throughout our lives, and wonderful to know that you are having that impact on your students even through this most difficult situation.


    Be the change you seek,

    Scott Swenson, Editor

  • invalid-0

    “People in the community were not comfortable with the issue of gay.”

    It’s like a line out of Napolean Dynamite!

  • invalid-0

    This has made me so mad I have posted a blog on my facebook page with the website to the school district. I am asking for a letter writing campaign to begin if this story strikes a nerve in you.
    How funny it is on their homepage they state the following:

    Notice of Non-Discrimination

    It is the policy of Grandfield Public School District No. I-249 not to discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or age in its programs, services, and activities as required by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975.

    CAN YOU READ “IN IT’S PROGRAMS, SERVICES OR ACTIVITIES”.
    I am so glad my children were not educated in a district such as this!

    Good luck my dear and fight this for all teachers who do what you do!!!

  • invalid-0

    Thank you for your courage & determination to represent true values. Without you and programs like the Southern Poverty Law Center & Erase Hate of the Matthew Shepard Foundation we will be a Medieval Society ad infinitum. I hope you find grand success through the widespread exposure of your courage & character. School Boards are too often prone to discouraging education because it might open a door to truth and understanding. What irony!!

  • invalid-0

    Debra,

    Bring the object lesson home and fight for your due and for the lessons your students will teach their children. Standing in the way of hatred, intolerance and bigotry winning the day are people of honor and good conscious standing up and saying in one voice . . . enough!

  • invalid-0

    Previously sent to escherler@grandfield.k12.ok.us

    Mr. Scherler,

    With respect to the actions of Superintendent Turlington in the dismissal of Debra Taylor, the eyes of the this nation are upon you and your school. It is clear to us that great teachers like Debra Taylor are exactly what your schools need to mold the citizens of this nation. Her students and the students of Grandfield High School have learned their lessons well but not I expect in the way you might have hoped.

    Please be clear in the implication of my words, a lawsuit, should Ms. Taylor wish to file it, most certainly has merit and would likely succeed. You stand today unaware of the massive tidal wave that is about to break over you. Ignorant of the fact that in a digital world you cannot hide, you strive to fight the “good fight” for God and small town values. Nevertheless, the students of Grandfield High learned their lessons not because of Mr. Turlington – but rather (and more pointedly)in spite of him. Superintendent Turlington (and all who think like him) have undertaken a fool’s errand, for this is a fight you’ve already lost.

  • http://somenotesonliving.wordpress.com invalid-0

    The ACLU may be willing to get involved, and possible Lamda Legal defense – if teaching tolerance is insubordination than we live in a something far less than a democracy. Please bring a suit for wrongful termination – Now more than ever even a labor attorney may take the case. What you did was the right thing to do. Hate is learned and we cannot start early enough in our educational system to forward the concept of tolerance , which is not acceptance of course – but acting out on personal prejudices in this day and age is uncivilized.

    Thank goodness for educators like yourself. Fight on ! You are more than a teacher, indeed you are an educator. We as a nation have to resist the dumbing down of this country and its children – public schools here instead of being hot beds of mediocrity need to be more like what you tried to instill in your classroom. Know there are people who are behind you and laud you for your attempts to educate. Your termination was wrong wrong wrong !

  • invalid-0

    Who would Jesus censure?

    Not Matthew Shepard.

    Not Debra Taylor.

    Not her students.

    Not the towns’ people.

    Not even the intolerant superintendent.

    Who would Jesus censure?

    Moneychanges.

    Just read the red words.

  • invalid-0

    You are a shining example of why I left my home town of Tulsa in my early 20’s. The still Red state of Oklahoma has proven that it will cling to it’s out-dated ideals and misplaced morality forever, no matter how the rest of the world progresses. I tried to move back to Tulsa in 1999 w/ my family so that my children could get to know my half of their family. What they were met with was a very deep seeded racist community, a community whose attitudes and spirituality seemed to be based in fear and hatred. Because of the narrow-mindedness of how I was raised and the intolerance that I was raised with in the Baptist church in Oklahoma, I grew up to ask my own questions and seek new answers. I am today, and have for the last 25 years, been a Priestess of Wicca, devoted to the Divine Feminine and our connectedness to nature. When this became common knowledge back in Tulsa, we had the pleasure of experiencing their back-woods sort of hatred when neighbors burned a cross on our lawn and my children were being threatened in school. We packed up and came back to the beautiful and tolerant state of WA. a year after we left. Cheers to you, Debbie, for at least trying to teach love and tolerance in a place which has chosen to hang on to it’s ignorance and hatred, while placing their heartlessness at the feet of their God. While I agree that you should stand up and fight, as what they did to you is illegal and immoral, I also think you are wasting your time trying to teach these important life lessons in a place that is proud of their hate. Come and teach in WA. state. We need good teachers and are a most loving and tolerant community. Bright Blessings.

  • invalid-0

    If she had asked permission before she did there should not be a problem. I think that this principal didn’t like her in the first place he trapped her IN making a problem in the school and now he is enjoying what happened to her and that is so sad and that is a fact.

    This is man’s world and if a man had done this there wouldn’t be a problem but seeing how a woman did it there is a problem.

    I don’t find a problem to teach children to like anyone no matter who the person is but maybe if was the manner she chose to do it in but that is really sad to think there is another good teacher out of classroom.

    MAY GOD BLESS THIS TEACHER AND HER FAMILY NOW AND FOR ALL TIME AS I AM SURE HE WILL!!!

  • invalid-0

    The past several years I have had students who share your faith and practice Wicca. I have been introduced to the devotion you share with nature and the Divine Feminine through their lively debates and intense discussions. Thank you for sharing your experiences with me and my students who have also read the blog this week.

  • invalid-0

    To all who have taken the time to post a message this past week THANK YOU! Your thoughts and words of praise encourage me to continue to find ways to speak out against the prejudices that led to my resignation and the acts of discrimination my students have experienced. You have proven once again that the media is our courtroom and you are our policemen.

    The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason for hope. PIERRE TEILHARD DE CHARDIN

  • invalid-0

    You should check your facts. Investigation into the murder disproved that Sheppard was killed because he was gay. Doesn’t make him less dead or excuse the taking of his life. Also, the Bible does not teach hate. Look at the violence in the world. It’s not being done in the name of Christ.

  • invalid-0

    There needs to be some system in place which protects the jobs of teachers who take great personal risks in the classroom.

    I’m sorry you lost your job over this, Ms. Taylor.

    Do send me an email. I’d love to talk with you.

  • colleen

    Investigation into the murder disproved that Sheppard was killed because he was gay

    You folks need to stop lying.

     

  • http://www.buddhaamulet.net invalid-0

    What I figured out for myself is that this world is getting to be more and more intolerant. People like you Debra are rare who stands for their conviction. You tried to sensibilize your students and I admire this because too often people are quite because they want to life in “peace”.