Despite it all—the national media headlines, the heated debate and a raucous public meeting in which he and an assistant principal were accused of promoting homosexuality—Omar Currie seems relaxed and friendly as he sips a coffee in a downtown Mebane coffee shop.
Perhaps it's because the besieged third-grade teacher at Efland-Cheeks Elementary School in Orange County has already made up his mind. If his meeting this week with school administrators does not go well, Currie says he will resign, about a month after he read a gay fable called King & King to his students to counter bullying.
The story has generated widespread media attention in Efland, a tiny, unincorporated locale on the border of Alamance and Orange counties with a population of less than 1,000.
"There was no doubt in my mind that Orange County Schools would be behind me 100 percent," Currie says. "Oh, how I was wrong."
The book, published in 2002 by Dutch writers Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland, tells the story of a frustrated prince who does not want to marry a princess. The prince falls in love with a man and the two are later wed, closing the book with a kiss. Currie read the book after one boy was taunted and called "gay" multiple times by his classmates.
Since then, school officials—prompted by parents' complaints—held a public hearing in the school's gym and reviewed the book twice to determine if it should be banned. Both times the school's Media Review Committee sided with keeping the book, but the school's principal, Kiley Brown, mandated a policy forcing teachers to notify parents of every book read in the classroom—a policy Currie adamantly opposes.
Brown, who did not respond to the INDY's interview requests, also ordered that parents be given the choice to opt out of the lesson. Through it all, the Orange County Schools Board of Education has been noticeably quiet.
No members attended last month's public meeting, and board chairman Stephen Halkiotis told the INDY Monday that members were advised by their attorney not to discuss the topic. If they did speak, Halkiotis said members could be forced to recuse themselves if they later had to hear a formal grievance on the controversy at the district level.
But, lacking any district support, Currie says he may have to leave if he can't do his job properly. He fears that he will receive a career-damning evaluation from his principal at year's end, and the distraction may prevent him from effectively teaching his students this year.
"It was a 20-minute moment," he says. "And it has become so much bigger than that."
North Carolina law directs teachers to be prepared to offer lessons in the classroom that discourage bullying, but Currie says school administrators—through the new policy—have made him feel as if he did something wrong by reading the book, which was given to him by the school's assistant principal, Meg Goodhand.
Angry parents targeted Currie and Goodhand during last month's public meeting. A handful argued Currie, an openly gay man, was forcing pro-gay rights dogma on their children.
Rodney Davis, a Mebane resident with two children at Efland-Cheeks Elementary, was one of those scandalized parents. "They're promoting a sinful lifestyle," Davis told the INDY. "They're indoctrinating our children without our permission."
Davis says he has hired a lawyer and may file a suit against the school system, even though he did not have a child in Currie's class when the book was read.
Goodhand has avoided public attention during the controversy, although she read a statement during the public meeting defending Currie against accusations that he was teaching with a "personal agenda."
"I am here to stand with Mr. Currie and other educators to speak for the many voices that have been silenced within our schools' walls and the community," Goodhand said.
Currie and LGBT advocacy groups say the school system should have acted decisively to defend him and Goodhand. "They threw me and our assistant principal under the bus," he says.
Amy Glaser is the executive director of Inside Out, a North Carolina nonprofit that advises and assists students in launching pro-LGBT school clubs such as the Gay-Straight Alliance.
"I think it's a shame [Currie] didn't receive the support he needed to stay in the classroom," Glaser says. "I think we should teach respect. That's not the message that's being sent."
Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, a national group that promotes pro-LGBT teaching practices, including lesson plans designed to help teachers address the topic in the classroom, says Orange County officials should have been "forthright and direct" in defending Currie and Goodhand.
"One of the amazing life skills that we hope all children learn is how to be in a community with people who are different from you," she says. "The idea of opting out and cordoning off the reality of life is not a recipe for success for our schools or our children."
It's not the first LGBT controversy for Orange County Schools. Last year, the INDY reported allegations that a principal at Hillsborough's A.L. Stanback Middle School hindered the creation of a Gay-Straight Alliance ("Gay is OK," June 25, 2014).
School system leaders publicly criticized that principal after the report, and she stepped down months later. Nevertheless, Halkiotis says he does not believe the system has a discrimination problem.
"As a teacher for many years in Orange County, I couldn't go out and pick and choose what I wanted to bring into the classroom," he says. "I always tried to be sensitive to all the kids, all the time, and that included their parents."
And he doesn't think school administrators acted inappropriately in issuing the school's new policy.
"Everyone needs to take a deep breath and be patient," he says. "Orange County Schools, in my opinion, doesn't discriminate against anybody. We can't, because we're public."
Currie isn't so sure. Asked what he hopes his students take from the controversy, Currie puts down his coffee and smiles.
"I hope they understand that we accept people who are different and who have different opinions," he says. "I hope that I've been a good role model for that."