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When Names Can Hurt You

Adam Kelley understands how dangerous slurs can be--and he's shared that lesson with his students

Adam Kelley understands how dangerous slurs can be--and he’s shared that lesson with his students

By Emily Rosenbaum

Adam Kelley’s classroom at the Brooklyn High School for Leadership and Community Service is a Safe Zone, where name-calling is never allowed. “New students push to understand the boundaries, so most of the time we need to have that conversation again about community and about respect,” says Kelley.

Kelley knows just how damaging slurs can be. As a Peace Corps volunteer teaching kindergartners in a village in Uganda, he was outed by a woman who was attempting to blackmail him. The punishment for male homosexuality under Ugandan tribal law is severe, and Kelley had to flee, returning to the States.

Someone differently constituted might have rethought his career path at that point, but Kelley, though shaken, became even more committed to multiculturalism and community building.

He threw himself into summer intensive training with the Teachers College Peace Corps Fellows, a program that recruits returning Peace Corps volunteers to teach in high-need New York Public Schools. The Peace Corps Fellows has trained more than 700 returning Peace Corps volunteers since its inception in 1985, teachers who are consistently rated better than other first-year teachers.

In what turned out to be a pivotal teaching moment, Kelley eventually told his Brooklyn students the circumstances of his departure from Uganda. “Sometimes the students who’ve been in my class before educate the new students, and they will stick up for me. They have the conversation about what the slur means, and they educate the new students.”

His students also identify with his experience because “they don’t want to be saved. They want a second chance, and they see that me teaching at the school and interacting with them was my second chance. Sharing vulnerability with students who feel guarded in the school atmosphere allows them to focus on their learning because they’re not questioning the personal relationships they have with each other and with the teacher.”

As far as Kelley is concerned, teaching is all about forming bonds, and even looking back on his final moments in his Ugandan village, he stresses that two of his friends brought their families to see him off. “They defied their culture to come and say goodbye. That took courage.”

As he should know.

Published Thursday, May. 19, 2011