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Ferial Pearson, English teacher and a Gay Straight Alliance club supervisor, maintains her “rainbow table” as an LGBTQ resource for students at Omaha South High Magnet School.

Underdog Champion

South High teacher earns national award for work with LGBTQ youth

It’s not hard to see why students at Omaha South High Magnet School are drawn to Ferial Pearson — and why she’s equally dedicated to them. Pearson has a plum exterior — colorful and bright — but with a pit made of iron. Pearson, an English teacher and an advisor for the school’s Gay Straight Alliance club, was recently named “Educator of the Year” by Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network for her work with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth in Omaha. Not only does Pearson help oversee South’s alliance, but she also helped start Omaha’s Pride Prom five years ago, a spring dance where students can bring same-sex dates without fear of mockery or being denied admittance. More than 300 attendees from across the state went to last year’s Pride Prom. As gay bullying-induced suicides have rocked the nation, at least one high school has been actively involved in halting violence for almost a decade. “If [students] are in English class, they can’t focus if they’re thinking, ‘How will I get to math class without getting pushed into a locker or called a name,’” she says. Enter the alliance, which she says has had a tremendous impact on the school’s general attitude. Pearson points to a pale, tired-looking boy who told her he came to school, even though he was sick, just because there was an alliance meeting. Other students tell her they attended South strictly because of the alliance. “As an educator, it’s imperative to make sure kids are respected,” she says. “Even if it’s just one adult, or five adults, that say, ‘You’re OK. We like you the way you are.’” Ischel Gonzalez-Kelso, a former alliance member and student of Pearson’s, nominated her personal hero for the national award. “She deserves a lot,” Gonzalez-Kelso says, “because she’s done a whole lot for a lot of people.” She says many kids feel the alliance is the “only place they can go and have friends who don’t judge them for who they are.” Pearson, a 32-year-old mother of two, says she understands her students' position. Of Indian descent, she was an ethnic minority in Kenya, where she was born and raised. Her family was also Muslim within a Kenyan Indian community that was primarily Hindu. “Growing up, my parents and grandparents said if you see injustice and do nothing, you’re just as guilty as the perpetrator,” she says. “We’ve always been ones to stand up for the underdog, I guess, because we we’ve always been the underdogs.” She attended Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., where an American childhood friend lived and studied. The move made sense — Pearson loved Laura Ingalls Wilder as a girl, and was inspired by John Denver to learn guitar. But when she left for Minnesota, she didn’t even own a winter coat. “Gustavus Adolphus is a Swedish Lutheran college,” she says with a laugh. “Everyone looked like Ken and Barbie. I couldn’t tell anyone apart. “And then I married a Ken.” Race and culture are important considerations for Pearson at South High, whose population is about two-thirds Latino. She spoke six languages when she moved to Omaha, but not Spanish. But she’s working to reach out to the Hispanic community. She’s learning Spanish, and her “rainbow table” of brochures and information packets is stocked with bilingual materials. She’s also encouraging her students to be more politically active. Part of her work with Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network will center on getting schools to add sexual orientation and identity to their non-discrimination polices. She said she hasn’t hammered out many details with the organization yet regarding her role, but she knows she wants to focus on changing school policy nationwide. “I think teenagers have a really strong sense of, ‘That’s not fair,’” she says, “and it moves them to action.” Pearson spends every other summer in Kenya with her 7-year-old son, Ilahi, and her 4-year-old daughter, Iman — “So they know where I came from” — but she said she plans to stick around Omaha for a while. “It’s a good place to raise kids,” she says. “And I feel like I have work to do here … I feel like I belong here.”

posted at 07:14 pm
on Tuesday, November 09th, 2010

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