Nicole Young-Turner (Metro Atlanta, '11) shares a personal story about her commitment to educational equity.
January 6, 2017
By Nicole Young-Turner (Metro Atlanta, '11)
There I sat in the front row of my Advanced Placement U.S. History class, in the midst of a zealous debate with Mrs. Downs about the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation, when the intercom sharply cut in “Nicole Turner, please come to the counselor’s office.” My heart immediately sank and melted into the carpet beneath my feet—what had I done? Although I was known amongst teachers and faculty to be a bit of an academic spitfire, I had never been in interrupt-class-come-to-the-office-immediately trouble. Torn between the emotional dimensions of dread and curiosity, I sped to my favorite counselor’s office.
“Hi Nicole, please sit down,” Ms. Howard said somberly, avoiding eye contact.“So I’ve been hearing things, and I want you to know that I know about…I know that. Look—whatever you are or whoever you like: keep it to yourself. It’s a distraction.”
As an LGBTQ youth, I stared blankly out of the glass windows in her office, fighting back the angry tears threatening to scorch my face. Unable to speak, I walked back to class ironically passing a straight couple kissing in the hallway. That day was the first time I truly felt like a second-class citizen, almost a nonperson. The people that I looked to for support, considered a core piece of me disturbing and shameful.
Growing up, I was taught to value myself and carry myself with pride. I was acutely aware that there would be people who view me as inferior because of my skin color and gender; yet my self-efficacy was fortified by examples of amazingly impactful people who served as mirrors for me. I learned about the intrepid Ruby Bridges and Harriett Tubman; I studied the influential literature of Zora Neale Hurston, bell hooks, and Maya Angelou. I was encouraged to celebrate my Blackness and my Womanhood in affirming spaces at home and in school. This strong sense of self provided me with the courage to be the first person to come out in my family and in my school. If I chose to hide, what message would I be sending to myself, to countless others who remain invisible, and, ultimately, to those who (knowingly or unknowingly) proliferate oppression?
Soon after that fateful conversation, a sense of purpose filled my spirit; I made the pivotal decision to not only live in my truth, but to advocate for awareness and empowerment for the unseen and unheard. Friends, fellow classmates, and even faculty surprisingly began to share their experiences, affirm my choice to be visible, and actively promote inclusivity. A small but mighty community started to shed their invisibility cloaks, unite, and mobilize for change. By senior year, we crowned the first openly gay prom king and founded a GSA student organization. Although Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Harvey Milk nor Stonewall existed in our curricular consciousness, we set out to be our own role models-- our own heroes.
The day that my life changed wasn’t the day I came out of the closet, it was the day I was told to reenter it. Being advised to remain invisible, to render a part of myself inconsequential ignited my passion for creating spaces and opportunities for all students and educators to unashamedly embrace their authentic selves, engage in #BraveConversations, and forge pathways to ensure equity and inclusivity. While invisibility is the essence of our oppression, visibility and unity is essential to our liberation.