After a third-grader tearfully recounted how another boy had called him "gay" during gym class, teacher Omar Currie chose to raise the issue during story time by reading his students a fable about a prince who falls in love with another prince, ending with a happily-ever-after royal wedding.
That decision in April ignited a public outcry from some parents in the rural hamlet of Efland, North Carolina, resulting in Currie's resignation this week from a job he loved. The assistant principal who loaned Currie her copy of "King & King" has also resigned, and outraged parents are pressuring administrators at the Orange County Schools to ban the book.
"When I read the story, the reaction of parents didn't come into my mind," Currie, 25, said Tuesday. "In that moment, it just seemed natural to me to read the book and have a conversation about treating people with respect. My focus then was on the child, and helping the child."
Currie knows firsthand what it is like to be bullied. Growing up gay and black in a small town in the eastern part of the state, his memories of middle school are of being a frequent target for teasing and slurs.
As a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Currie entered a teaching fellows program with the intent of helping young people. He was first introduced to "King & King" during an education course that included strategies for introducing topics involving diversity in the classroom.
After graduation, Currie became a teacher at nearby Efland-Cheeks Elementary School. Though only about 15 miles west of Chapel Hill, a college town considered among the most liberal enclaves in the state, Efland is a socially conservative community of about 750 people where churches line the highway through town.
Within hours after reading the book to his students, Currie said he got a call from the school's principal requesting a meeting in her office for the following morning. The parents of three children soon filed written complaints to a school review committee, which twice upheld the use of the book after heated public meetings. But the school's principal also issued a new directive that teachers must submit an advance list of all books they intend to read with students to their parents.
"King & King" has been a subject of controversy before. In 2006, the parents of a Massachusetts second-grader sued after the book was read in their child's class. A federal judge later ruled against them, saying the rights of parents to exercise their religious and moral beliefs are not violated when children are exposed to differing ideas in public school.
In his two years at Efland elementary, Currie said his sexual orientation had never been an issue. His co-workers, and some parents, knew he lives with his male partner.
But at the committee meetings to discuss Currie's use of the book, some parents whose children were not in his class made their attacks personal, telling him he would die young and spend eternity in hell. He also began receiving hate-filled letters and emails, including one copied to other teachers at the school, described homosexuality as a "birth defect" while accusing Currie of trying to "indoctrinate" children through "psycho-emotional rape."
Though he says administrators never formally disciplined him for his decision to read the book, Currie said he was made to feel that he had done something wrong and felt pressured to leave the school. He is currently looking for another teaching job.
A spokesman for the Orange County Schools said Tuesday that Interim Superintendent Pam Jones was not available for an interview.
Meg Goodhand, the assistant principal who resigned after loaning Currie the book, also declined to comment.