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A gay student, a prom, a life lesson

Sometimes how we alleged adults handle conflict in our schools makes you wonder what lesson we're trying to teach — particularly when the problem of the day has nothing to do with, say, school choice or the FCAT.

You may have read about Constance McMillen, a senior at a high school in rural north Mississippi who wanted to bring her girlfriend to next month's prom. McMillen, who is gay and who also has a 3.8 grade point average, wanted to wear a tux, too.

School officials said no.

What followed: "Disruption."

In my own life I happen to be surrounded by teachers, friends and family both. They like to remind me, in teacher-like fashion, that "disruption" is no small thing when you are attempting to educate.

In this case, the question is who and what made for the "disruption."

In the ensuing kerfuffle over McMillen's request, school officials went so far as to cancel the entire prom, calling her attempt disruptive.

The girl's camp — which would ultimately include the American Civil Liberties Union and a lawsuit — said the disruption came only after the prom was canceled.

You can see how that might be disruptive. Prom can be a big-deal milestone for a lot of kids, a rite of passage you're supposed to remember when you're old and gray.

Cancel my prom for one kid? Yeah, might be some backlash on that one.

"A lot of people didn't like me very much," McMillen would testify in court.

Okay, could there have been a better way?

Maybe treating McMillen's request as not the biggest deal on the planet, so long as she followed the same rules as everyone else about formality of attire and appropriate behavior and such?

Might that even have encouraged respect for differences, or at the very least, tolerance of them?

Not that this particular conflict is new, just evolving all around the country as we become, if not tolerant, at least more open to talking about it.

We've seen it around here in battles over school clubs to support gay students. We saw it in 2002 when a senior at Tampa's Robinson High wanted to wear a suit and tie in her senior picture rather than the traditional girly "drape" and was told no.

And, seriously. What is so very disruptive about a girl in a suit for her small square of history inside her high school yearbook? Would it scald the very hands of anyone who dared pick it up?

Even the military is slowly coming around on Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell. Now there's a lesson a long time coming.

A postscript on the Mississippi situation: A federal judge ruled McMillen's constitutional rights were indeed violated, a trial to follow. The judge did not, however, force the school to reinstate the prom. I guess that one's up to us alleged grownups, to make sensible, best-for-everyone decisions.

And so much for quelling "disruption" with that cancellation. The story has made national news. Ellen DeGeneres presented McMillen with a scholarship. Meanwhile, parents are planning their own prom — good for them — and at least one other school's student body has said McMillen is welcome at its.

Maybe the kids involved will have a memory from all this beyond a corsage crushed in a yearbook.

A life lesson, even.

A gay student, a prom, a life lesson 03/26/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 26, 2010 5:29pm]
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[Times file photo]