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Guest Opinion: DeGeneres' message of compassion resonates

by Nancy A. Magee

Nancy A. Magee. Photo: Courtesy Facebook
Nancy A. Magee. Photo: Courtesy Facebook  

I felt lucky to be sitting with thousands of kindred spirits in Davies Symphony Hall last Friday night enjoying Ellen DeGeneres' first stand-up comedy tour in 15 years. I'm not only a DeGeneres fan for her wit and her philanthropy. I also appreciate her for the risks she took in coming out to the world and how, in turn, she helped so many others, including me, navigate those waters.

In fact, I credit the book by DeGeneres' mother Betty ("Love, Ellen: A Mother/Daughter Journey" (2000), with providing my own mom a positive, empathic perspective on her daughter's coming out. Having just recently lost my mother in the past few weeks at the age of 86, I cannot help but be grateful to Betty and Ellen DeGeneres for their courageous example.

It comes as no surprise that DeGeneres' Friday night stand-up routine was wonderful and sweet (and funny). But surprise did make an appearance, just not until the Q & A session when DeGeneres came back onstage and took audience questions. It was here - in the personal space - where the true impact of DeGeneres' honest voice and celebrity was the most profound.

Of the many questions that followed, the one that most touched my heart was posed by a young woman who introduced herself as a teacher-librarian (Swoon!) currently teaching middle schoolers in San Francisco. With conviction quivering in her voice, this teacher-librarian earnestly asked DeGeneres' advice on how best to teach compassion to young people.

DeGeneres' answer was exquisite in its immediacy. "Teach compassion as a class for every child from kindergarten all the way through 12th grade," she said, "just like you teach English and math and science and social studies." ("None of which are particularly useful by the way," she added for the laugh.)

The evening concluded with a dramatic exclamation point when a 20-something young man stood up, gripped the microphone with both hands, thanked DeGeneres for her courage, for her inspiration, and then went on to declare in front of DeGeneres, the 2,000-plus assembled audience members, and his mother sitting beside him, that he was going to use this moment to come out of the closet. "I'm gay," he proclaimed.

The theater erupted in applause that rolled into a standing ovation of several minutes while mother and son embraced in tears. DeGeneres invited mother and her freshly out son to come on "Ellen," her hit daytime talk show.

As students and educators across the Bay Area shift into back-to-school mode, I urge we all make room for DeGeneres' Friday night take-aways - compassion and acceptance. Research clearly indicates the benefits of a safe and positive school culture on student learning. The time couldn't be more right for campus conversations and classroom lessons that engender compassion and lead to acceptance.

The good news is that educators have more tools and resources than ever in supporting the diverse populations of students who walk into our classrooms. Such organizations as Facing History and Ourselves, No Bully, The Sojourn Project, Beyond Differences, GSA Network, Our Family Coalition, and many other regional and national organizations provide educators with loads of resources, education, and training.

County offices of education can also provide support and resources and often offer unique programs that support the needs of all youth. At the San Mateo County Office of Education for example, we provide resources through our countywide anti-bullying and civility initiative called RESPECT! 24/7. We have hosted convenings and seminars on youth suicide prevention, trauma informed classrooms, the gender spectrum, and restorative practices. We are proud to partner with the San Mateo County Pride Center and are looking forward to hosting a symposium for school advisers of genders and sexualities alliance clubs (GSA) this December.

As we lean into the 2018-19 school year, it is showtime for the FAIR Education Act (2012), which ensures students learn about diverse groups of people, including groups who've been largely absent from K-12 history instruction. With the 2017 state Board of Education adoption of instructional materials, students should now be learning about the historical contributions of LGBT Americans and people with disabilities right alongside those of Native Americans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders, and European Americans.

California has committed to the FAIR Act as essential for student success. Now we have to find the courage to stand up and proclaim it so within our local communities. Central to this leadership is the local county office of education, which, by prioritizing positive school climate as essential in achieving equity that leads to student success, can deploy resources to support local efforts. By doing so we not only teach every child compassion, we teach our communities as well.

Nancy A. Magee is the superintendent of schools-elect for San Mateo County.

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