“I’d like to sign out Jamin,” I told the student assistant.
It was mid April 2010 and I was at my son’s middle school to pick him up on our way to a Seattle Mariners game.
The assistant smiled, said nothing, and pointed to a clipboard. Then she wrote a note to another student in my view that said, “Please get Jamin. His mom is here to pick him up.” The note runner said nothing and headed to the classrooms.
Then the assistant picked up the pen again, met my eyes and wrote:
I am not speaking because I am participating in the Day of Silence.
Chills ran up my arms and spontaneously my eyes watered. I suddenly remembered the significance of the day, “Thank you,” I said, “and good for you.”
Jamin, then a seventh grader, had considered participating in the Day of Silence, but he knew that being silent at the rare opportunity to see professional baseball on a school night wasn’t for him.
“If I can’t do it all day it would be kind of cheating so I don’t want to do it. I can do it next year.”
2011 marks the 15th annual day of silence on April 15th. The website asks, “What are you going to do to end the silence?” On tax day, thousands of students will be silent to bring attention to anti LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender) name-calling, bullying, and harassment in schools.
Even though Jamin did not participate last year, several students used the occasion to harass their peers.
“Are you silent today?” a kid sneered, taking in my son’s long curly hair.
“No, but I support gay rights,” my son said back.
“You do know gay sex is like dry cereal, right?” the kid spat.
As my son retold the story he mused, “Now there were several things I could’ve said like ‘Well, how would you know?’ or ‘I happen to like dry cereal.’ But I said nothing.”
“I wonder what he said to the kids who were silent?” My question was left hanging between us.
Both my sixth-grader daughter, Maya, and Jamin plan to participate this year. They have a personal connection to these rights. They have a beloved family member who has been called names, bullied, and harassed because he loves men, not women. At age five, he didn’t like to play trucks; he liked Strawberry Shortcake and wearing purple. He has an unmistakable high-pitched infectious giggle. With immediate family he’s out, but other co-workers and extended family often chide him, “Why don’t you have a girlfriend yet?” My kids grew up with the belief that everyone deserves love; everyone deserves to partner with whomever they choose and the rights inherent in that partnership; everyone deserves to be left alone regarding these decisions.
We attend a church that acknowledges the “inherent worth and dignity of all people” and explicitly includes LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning and intersex). We signed the petition for Standing on the Side of Love calling for an end to fear, hate, and harassment. Yet having those beliefs in our home and at our church are easy; having those beliefs at school — middle school — is quite different.
“Do you anticipate some push back for participating this year?” I asked my kids.
“Yeah,” my son said, “there will probably be a jerk or two.”
“My friends won’t tease me,” Maya said, “but my ‘friends’ might.” Her air quotations around the second “friends” suggested those kids who were technically friends because they sat together at lunch, but would take any opportunity to say something mean.
“I’ll probably catch grief from boys,” predicted her big brother, “but Maya might get it from both boys and girls.”
“Do you think you might be targeted more because of your long hair?” I asked my son, “because you already look different than our society’s stereotypical male?”
He stopped for a moment, “I’d never really thought of that, but maybe.”
“What about any teachers who don’t agree with your beliefs?”
Jamin and Maya both looked surprised and commented that they couldn’t imagine that happening with any of their teachers.
“One of my teachers spoke about why she was supporting the kids participating. She talked about blinders and having a fixed point of belief like we’ve had in many instances in history. She said, ‘While some of you may find reason to believe that gay people should have limited rights, I believe they should have access to the same rights that all of us enjoy,'” said Jamin.
Then Maya looked perplexed. “I really don’t want to get teased,” she said. “Our school is pretty accepting, but there are always those kids. But I suppose that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? That me feeling uncomfortable one day is how some kids feel every day? Gay rights are a big deal, but I worry about those girls who are overly dramatic drawing attention to me. Plus, how would I not talk during class? I’m the kid who raises her hand a lot. A lot of people will notice that I’m not talking. Do you think I’d have to bring pounds of sticky notes to write on?”
A lot of people will notice that I’m-not-talking is the power of the Day of Silence. The concept of protesting by not-doing strikes me as Taoist in nature. One of my favorite passages from the Tao Te Ching goes:
We shape clay into a pot,
But it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.
There is a middle-schooler inside of me wishing I could participate with them this April and hoping it’s an experience that will encourage more opportunities to stand up (or become still) for what you believe in. What am I going to do to end the silence? Inspired by Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism, I quietly play with text:
Our voices say words
But it is the non-action, the silence
That is so loud.