Mama’s Boy, Preacher’s Son by Kevin Jennings (Beacon Press, 288 pages, $24.95)
Mama’s Boy, Preacher’s Son gives us a glimpse of the familiar worlds of family and school told from a different perspective.
Kevin Jennings starts his memoir in the rural south, an unplanned child in an already struggling family. He feels his outsider status early: told that his birth was God acting mysteriously, he sees himself as more of a burden than a blessing. We learn that part of Jennings’ otherness is that he is gay, something he realizes at an early age. Children in his school can tell that he is different, daily torture begins, he feels abandoned by the adults in his life. He makes it through his teens by reinventing himself at a new school. Immersed in his education, Jennings makes it to Harvard and a successful teaching career. Even then, he carries a scarlet “O” for outcast, always doubting himself. As a teacher, he finally regains courage and comes out to his students. A new chapter in Jennings’ life begins when he becomes an advocate for children who need a voice.
There seems to be considerable conflict in the media about how we relate to children. There are bullies and mean girls running amok in our schools. Yet schools coddle our children, ruining them with politically correct ideology. Jennings reminds us how we should treat children. They need advocates. And their schools should not be islands where shipwrecked children create their own societies. They need to be places where all children should be safe. Gay, lesbian and bisexual students are most definitely not safe in our schools, we learn, having to lie to survive and killing themselves at a higher rate than their straight peers. In response, Jennings creates the Gay and Lesbian School Education Network (GLSEN) which gives gay students a voice that has been ignored by schools, a voice that speaks about harassment by other students, indifference of adults in the schools, violence and discrimination.
Jennings reminds us that all over, there are children who do not fit in. Persecuted for being different, they need a safety net. As we follow Jennings’ journey from child in danger of falling through the cracks to teacher and advocate holding out a rescuing hand, we develop a deeper understanding of what everyone who spends time with young people can do to make them feel safe, known, accepted and able to thrive.
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania resident Daryl Lynn Johnson is an early childhood education student, mother, writer and volunteer tutor.