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A Work in Progress
As we transition from our Mental Health Awareness Month series to Pride Month, we hear from Tatum, a 2016 TFA–San Antonio corps member who's very active in our national Prism network, which mobilizes LGBTQ corps members, alumni, staff, community members and our allies to advance safer schools and classrooms.
I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which essentially means that my brain misfires and turns me into an extreme worrywart. Anxiety infiltrates every aspect of my life; it has permeated my friendships, my relationship, my job, and at times, my inner thoughts.
Anxiety is not a thing that I am ever truly without. When the anxiety is about abstract things, I'm pretty good at regulating my behaviors—I meditate, play soccer, even watch hours of reality television. But when my anxiety gets a hold of something tangible and real like the situation I’m about to describe below, all bets are off.
Scene: Elementary School Teacher in Central Texas
After accepting my position with TFA–San Antonio, I began the process of figuring out how to be my authentic self, safely. In Texas, and in San Antonio specifically, there are no job place protections for the LGBTQ+ community, and at any time, your job can be terminated due to your orientation.
During the interview process, I remember being terrified of how immediately evident my LGBTQ+ identity would be. As a (questionably healthy) coping mechanism, I dressed more femininely than usual, and did my best to minimize anything that would identify me as queer.
This only compounded the issue once I was in my classroom, because by then I had done so much to offset questions about my identity with my coworkers. I wasn't prepared for the reality that kids are way more perceptive than we give them credit for.
I did pretty much everything in my power to avoid talking about my personal life with my students, and it beat me down. I slept weird hours, worked obsessively on lesson plans (well beyond the normal drowning levels), and I could be short-tempered at times.
Resolution: The Coping and Enduring
At some point, I think I realized that my anxiety always resolves itself in the same way: going to the root and tackling it head-on. In this case, the anxiety was about what would happen if someone found out that I was queer. Eventually, with more courage than I thought possible, I sat my principal down and not only came out to her, but asked if I could come out to my students.*
School remained the only space in my day-to-day life where I wasn't out. My anxiety was mounting because I was refusing to address it, and I couldn't handle it anymore. I had to come out because there might be LGBTQ students who needed me to be visible as a capable, thriving, caring adult.
The Decision…and the Aftermath
I began telling my students in small groups, without making a class announcement, as they continued to ask questions about my life outside of school. Their responses were varied, but not in the way I was anticipating. They ranged from angry (“MISS! Why didn't you tell us sooner! We’re your babies!”) to impartial (“Oh. Okay. Cool.”) to excited (“Miss, this is great. I’ve never had a gay teacher. My aunt is gay too!”).
I’m proud of the way our classroom culture has evolved. My students have worked hard to be inclusive, and I feel our relationships are stronger because they feel like I’m open and honest with them. As for my anxiety about being out at school, it has all but dissipated. Moreover, the anxiety I have about my queer identity in Central Texas has been mostly mitigated now that I know I have the support of some of the core pieces of my life—my students.
In other words, being able to be my authentic self, without having to hide pieces, has made being a first-year teacher a little less difficult.
Instead, I’m back to my previous anxieties about economic collapse and purple leaves. I still have nights where I can’t sleep, for no particular reason other than that I feel afraid. I continue to have moments where I feel my fight or flight response working in overdrive over absolutely nothing, so I have to go run for 90 minutes in order to work through it. That’s just life with an anxiety disorder.
Ultimately, however, I faced the root of one of my biggest anxieties and found a supportive school community. I’ve been able to focus on developing as a teacher. It’s made it possible to thrive in my craft, create meaningful relationships, and expand people’s perspectives.
*Teach For America's LGBTQ Community Initiative continues to work to support regions on ways to better support corps members. The policies and employment protections across our regions vary, so we understand the value of "bringing one's full self to the classroom" is a privilege not always afforded to LGBTQ corps members. We hope to make the freedom to be OUT in classrooms more than aspirational.