It was hard to reconcile the emotions of thousands of educators gathered at this year’s NEA Representative Assembly. The July 4 meeting started with an explosive celebration. Classic hits from Prince and Michael Jackson blasted into the Washington Convention Center, and educators happily danced. But then, something happened.
Lily Eskelsen García, president of the NEA, said to 7,500 educators, “I don’t want to begin with tears, but I will not begin without this,” and 49 educators filed to the front of the stage with the images of the 49 people who died in the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando.
“Today, we mourn with Orlando. And we will not begin without honoring those who lost their lives for no other reason than that they were gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender,” she said.
Stephen Henry, a teacher from Nashville, Tenn., gave a heart-warming rendition of singer Cyndi Lauper’s 1986 hit song, True Colors. A slideshow of the fallen played on jumbo screens.
Nichole Devore, an educator from California read a poem from one of the survivors, who wrote about the “the guilt of surviving” while Frank Burger, a Michigan teacher encouraged delegates to find love despite the odds.
Delegates held a 49-second moment of silence for the 49 men and women, who celebrated Latino Night by dancing in a gay nightclub in Orlando, and were gunned down for being LGBTQ.
It was hard to find a dry eye in the assembly hall. Regina Johnson, a kindergarten teacher for nearly 20 years, sat in the back row of the Florida delegation, all of whom wore black T-shirts with a multi-colored heart and the hashtag “#orlandounited.”
“It’s sad because as [Lily] said ‘it’s senseless,’” says Johnson. “We’ve come a long way with acceptance of…race, color, gender, and religion. It’s surreal to me that hate is out there in such a level that we can’t agree to disagree—that we have to take such drastic measures.”
The Florida delegation came together to wear the T-Shirts to “support our brothers and sisters in the Orlando area and to show that we accept everyone, and we’re here together to hold hands, hug, and show love,” says Johnson.
In her remarks, Lily Eskelsen García explained of the tribute, “It’s fitting to start by acknowledging that there’s a real world out there, and it’s not a safe place. It’s dangerous, and the work we’ll do in this safe place is important, because it has the chance to change the world out there—that dangerous world needs us. It’s not a game.”
Despite the dangers, educators are not intimidated, as noted by last year’s decision to take on one of the most complex, divisive, and dangerous issues in the nation: Institutional Racism.
Now entering her third year as NEA president, she acknowledged that racism is a hard topic to discuss, “It sounds like we’re not being patriotic to say that it still exists. But it does. It exists in who gets pulled over…in who gets hired…in who goes to a public school that has everything a student needs to succeed and who doesn’t.”
Despite the somber tone, there were moments of inspiration as Eskelsen García talked about the trust placed on educators to advocate for students, colleagues, and the integrity of the education professions, as well as the long “moral arc of the universe,” that has hearts and minds bending toward justice. “But if our institutions—our policies, our programs, and practices—don’t change, then the oppressive conditions that people face will stay the same.”