MCLEAN, Va. – The classroom grew still.
George Bridges recalled going to school as a gay boy in a small Illinois town.
"I was very open with my sexuality. I was very open and very proud of who I was," the 16-year-old student told his class. "The football team and the school was not."
He moved briskly through the hate he said he encountered: the man who tossed a noose at Bridges in his debut as a cheerleader, the classmate who pressed his forearm against Bridges's throat in a bathroom and threatened to kill him if he did not move.
Bridges is far removed from the experiences, having moved to northern Virginia and enrolled in McLean High School, where he gave a presentation in a class called combating intolerance.
There are no textbooks or tests, no prescribed curriculum for teacher Julia Braxton to follow. The topics are provocative, primed for disagreement and discomfort. Over the course of a school year, students will be pushed to confront, interrogate and, in some instances, revise their understanding of racism, immigration, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, genocide and ableism.
They are the types of lessons that can be fraught. Last month, a white teacher in Virginia Beach sued a school system after she was fired over an exercise designed to teach about racial and other stereotypes. She argued in court papers that photos of the assignment were taken out of context online.
But the teenagers at McLean High are coming of age amid growing social awareness and accountability, illustrated by the student-led protests demanding action on climate change and by the #MeToo movement, which has compelled men to answer for wrongdoing dating back decades.
Several students said they feel a responsibility to talk openly about bias discrimination, viewing the conversations as necessary to understanding the world and how animus drives conflict.
"It just seems like people now are looking back at America's past, at the world's past, and seeing these horrible injustices and seeing them in this light," Rachel Kulp, 17, said. "There has been some change, but there hasn't been enough, and we need to take it upon ourselves."
In the first weeks of school, Braxton had students trace the history of a stereotype. Then they challenged it, dismantling the trope or explaining the nuances and harm it may cause.
Bridges talked about how characteristics traditionally associated with masculinity – strong, aggressive, straight – hurt men who do not exhibit those qualities. Asian American students shared how they were damaged by expectations that accompany the model-minority stereotype. A student who is a Latter-day Saint spoke about ignorant comments directed at his religious community.
They have also started to learn more about one another. Easton Freeman, the student whose project focused on Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stereotypes, said he was stunned to learn about the homophobia Bridges experienced.
"Growing up in a white, conservative home, there was a lot of things that were never brought to my attention because my environment did not bring it up," Freeman said. "I thought that, truly, everybody was past it and it was just something that people over exaggerated."
Another student, Rebecca Blacksten, chose the stereotype of the overbearing Jewish mother for her class project. It compelled her to re-examine the ways she has talked about her Jewish heritage.
Last school year, the 17-year-old performed a stand-up comedy routine that relied on Jewish stereotypes. The audience laughed, and she viewed the performance as a success – until she watched the video again for the combating intolerance class.
As she plunged into the class, she became embarrassed for "playing into stereotypes that Nazis perpetuated." She thought about her great-grandparents, who survived the Holocaust and who were disparaged for their religious beliefs.
"My great-grandmother was, her entire life, running away from things because of stereotypes that I'm now using to make people laugh," she said. "It just made me really upset."
She said she views learning about intolerance in class as a way to prevent persecution, to keep atrocities from happening in the future.
"There are men who don't think they have to go to the Women's March because they're not women, and there are straight people who feel like they don't have to support the LGBTQ community because they're not LGBTQ," she said. "This class has been so important in everybody realizing that if they stand up and say something, it can make a difference."
Popping the bubble
The students are aware that McLean is, in some respects, a bubble: The community's median household income exceeds $193,000 a year, and the student body espouses mostly liberal political views, they said. Students said they feel the school is generally accepting.
But some teenagers were drawn to the course to "pop that bubble," said Braxton, a social science teacher. Many of the 11th- and 12th-graders in the class come from privilege, the teacher said, but are empathetic and compassionate toward those who face intolerance and inequality.
She agreed to teach the class, which meets every other day during first period, because she said she did not feel there was enough time to adequately discuss social issues and intolerance that inevitably arise during lessons in the AP government courses she teaches.
Her goals for the class vary, depending on the student. For some, it's a matter of getting them to "acknowledge their privilege." For others, it is about developing the skills to advocate for change.
"Obviously, we can't solve racism in this class, but we can take baby steps," Braxton said. "Where else are they going to be able to talk about this? Where else are my students of color going to have an outlet to be able to be respected and share their experiences, within this building?"
For one of their first assignments, students were assigned an activity that made them responsible for "hiring" people based on a few pieces of information, including photos and names.
Students chose not to hire a pregnant woman, because she would eventually go on maternity leave. They decided against another woman because she appeared "aggressive." A man who students believed was Muslim was dismissed because some feared he would be "toxic."
Hannah Tsai, an Asian American student who has described the harmfulness of the "tiger mom" stereotype to her classmates, said she strives to be open-minded but the assignment unearthed biases she was unaware she had. "It really shocked me what kinds of underlying prejudices I already had ingrained in me," Tsai said.
Having grown up in McLean, Camille Blakemore, 16, said it was "kind of hard for me to comprehend" examples of hate and discrimination shared by classmates who have lived elsewhere.
Class discussions also made the teenager realize she harbors an unconscious bias toward Republicans. She appreciates that the class pushes students to listen to one another and "see past the initial things that might turn you off from somebody's opinion."
Others at the school assume that the students enrolled in the class share similar social and political views, said Lauren Thompson, a 17-year-old who chose the stereotype that "black people are poor" to explain systemic racism and how federal policies have created wealth disparities.
They assume that "even though we're so into diversity, that our thought processes are so homogeneous," Thompson said. But she said that isn't true - there is disagreement and discussion.
The teenager said she has always felt a responsibility to understand "why things are the way things are in America and the world." And she has been exposed to problems and perspectives she had not previously thought much about, such as the challenges faced by people with disabilities.
"It really makes you aware of the different stories people in our community have," the teen said. "We're all living different lives, and just because you haven't experienced anything, that doesn't mean that this doesn't still exist."