Blair Mishleau, a first-year Twin Cities corps member, teaches writing in Minneapolis.
I’m often reminded that students have a short, selective memory. My advisory spent ten minutes during lunch last week berating the scheduled (every Monday and Thursday) reading of The Hunger Games. By the end of the day, in study hall, they were silent and rapt as I read aloud the adventures of Katniss Everdeen.
Thus it perhaps shouldn’t have taken me by surprise that, after I came out to them in October, the news disappeared into the endless vortex of information that they forgot or deemed outdated and/or irrelevant.
Indeed, this experience, which I had fretted about since before beginning my TFA application, was scantly mentioned again until just recently. I actually had to remind a student or two about it, when they mentioned their hatred/revulsion of gay people. In these moments, they seemed almost re-shocked at such a revelation (as if they were saying to themselves, “It wasn’t a dream!”)
What I hadn’t planned for was the influx of new students I’d see so late in the year and how to approach the subject with them. Three joined my small freshman advisory, and a whole host joined my other classes.
In the first week, one of the new students was talking of his intense distaste for gay folks. As he said, “I’d never respect a gay person.” One student’s selective memory kicked into overdrive: “Would you ever respect a gay teacher?” he said, eyes shifting knowingly to me.
I was unsure of how to react in this situation: Do I catch the new student up with the usual class binder, journal, and an informal “Oh, and I’m gay, by the way”?
Instead, I took the uncommon path (for me) of staying silent…making me, mathematically speaking, about 67% out to my advisory of six students.
Meanwhile, in my seventh period, I came out to them for the first time. A student had the brawn to ask me directly. As part of our journalism unit, a student is profiling me. Slipped in his multitude of questions: “Are you gay?” Upon hearing my response, he asked, “Really? Really?” in a variety of raising octaves, and then said, “Oh, okay.”
If math serves me correctly, I’m about 29% out to my students: Just three sections left to go.
At the end of the day, I remind myself that nothing about leveling the educational playing field is easy. If coming out in such a position of privilege–both as an authority figure and a middle-class white dude–is tough, it’s nothing compared to what one of my students would go through should he/she identify as LGBT.
Heck, just next door to my district, we’ve seen the harm that can happen to gay students: a suicide a month until federal intervention. That’s what inspires me to keep opening the closet door: it may just be one period of one day, but I want students who are different (in any way) to know that someone really, really has their back.
Please go to www.safeclassrooms.org and pledge to make your classroom and school a safe place and encourage other educators to join you. There is no path to educational equity that doesn’t include all of us assuming responsibility for ensuring our classrooms are safe and affirming places for every student—particularly those who identify as or are perceived to be LGBTQ.