le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

thank a teacher

sunday night, I read the (now-removed, soon to be reposted) story of an amazing english teacher who fought the good fight for good YA books and lost to an unsupportive administration who caved to parental book-banning pressure. It was a remarkable story, even before the book-banning appeared to give the story a dark turn; this english teacher got her students reading: in class, in a book club that swelled to over 100 members. these students, in turn, demonstrated the benefits of reading books you like by performing better on standardized tests.
Somewhere online, I came across a mention of National Teachers' Day, and got to thinking about teachers (again, as always, big surprise).

I'm a pedigreed teacher: both my parents taught in public schools. Both hold masters degrees in education. I, of course, teach the mostly-privileged at a university. I was raised to be respectful and appreciative of my teachers, a thing that probably would have occurred anyway, because I loved school. so, a brief ode to some great teachers, and some thoughts on queer teachers.

Second grade, Mrs Eva Chapman, teacher extraordinaire. Evidently reported to my parents, during a parent-teacher conference, that I was "perfect." [I only learned this much, much later, like late in college. no swelled heads in our family]. What was perfect was Mrs Chapman's teaching, which introduced to our second-grade classroom classics of art and music (I learned about Van Gogh and Renoire and Haydn in her room, as well as Don MacLean and The Marvelettes). We were told the story of "The Elephant's Child" via feltboard; I pestered immediately for my own copy of the Just-So Stories. We learned about winnie-the-pooh, accompanied by shepherdesque stuffed animal friends. We learned nursery rhymes and coloring, we learned about breeds of dogs, we put on an Extravaganza of singing and dancing (that, in retrospect, should have warmed the little flamboyant hearts of any babygays in the class). I learned to be curious in her classroom, or rather, learned that my curiosity had a place in school, in education, in the world. And that the payoffs to following my curiosity could be fantastic - i mean, Van Gogh! what a light at the end of the tunnel of learning....

There were some lean years of uninspiring teachers, but in highschool, my history teachers more than made up for it. Mr Bogey, AP European teacher, filled my notebooks and my brain with details and information and stories that still crop up from time to time. A few years back, in one of the last classes I took in the PhD program here, the subject of Italy's unification came up, and I, without even thinking, murmured the crucial dates and names. AP Euro was a lot of wars and dates and names, but there were also a lot of stories, and ideas: there was art and architecture, there were all those philosophers and thinkers and writers.

Mr Neubauer was THE teacher, though, in my junior and senior years. AP American History, AP Government & Politics, respectively. The knowledge acquired in those classes is also still handily tucked away in some fold of my brain. but more than that, mr neubauer gave us power. he taught us some fundamentally important Supreme Court cases dealing with free speech and expression. He taught us that West Virginia v. Barnett meant that we could not be compelled to pledge allegiance to the flag. he encouraged us to ask questions, to argue, to debate. He ran his classes like the best seminars I ever had at new college, and he did it with a bunch of relatively close-minded teenagers from very affluent, conservative families. He let me be the oddball outspoken lefty liberal and somehow, quietly encouraged me to feel like it was right and good and okay to be that person. he laughed sympathetically, commiserating when I came into class freezing cold with sopping wet hair from swimming in gym class. he let me, and a few of my cronies, sit on the window ledge during class, not in desks (initially, i began sitting on the window ledge to try to absorb what little heat i could from the heat vent on the ledge - see wet hair, above, for more details).

His class was the "radicalizing" moment of my life, I guess. We had to write about controversial topics, choose a side and argue it, and somehow, I can't remember why, I picked gay marriage as my topic. I really don't know how I came to choose it, but this was fall of 1996, and anti-gay feeling was free-floating in the world. And I picked it and - because we had to - made public my pro-gay attitudes, which somehow led to a whole slew of other things, including an effort at forming a gay-straight alliance in our high school (though we didn't know to call it that; it was just a before-school meeting of a very few gay kids and their very few allies, in the office of the district social worker, who, it turned out, was sticking her neck WAY out for us).
We caused a commotion, somehow, without necessarily meaning to; we weren't allowed to put up posters about our little group. We couldn't "recruit," as it were. We couldn't let the closeted queer kids in our school know that there were friends and allies and other queer kids, and that we were all there to help each other. Yet the Christian Prayer group was allowed to meet in the school building, with announcements on the PA, praying publicly around the flagpole in the mornings. It was gross and appalling discrimination, and Mr Neubauer made sure we had the intellectual tools we needed. He couldn't or wouldn't join the fight, for reasons I grudgingly accept and understand, but he taught us what we needed to know to go to law books, to do research and articulate our (lost) cause.
We failed in forming a lasting group. We were forbidden from posting signs or making announcements about our "diversity" or "tolerance" group. I came home after the final meeting with the principal, and burst into tears at the injustice of it. That we were right - legally, morally, ethically RIGHT - and still lost was an unbelievably bitter pill to swallow. It still sticks in my throat, to remember that feeling.

Our district social worker was threatened with being fired or disciplined for her support of our group. She stuck with us.

After school ended - our senior year - we had a little picnic in the park. The queer kids and their allies (all eight of us, I think - it was a small group) met up and had snacks and picnic food and pondered the future.
And a teacher from our school came, and brought her partner.
This was not a teacher I ever had, or knew; she had been almost silently instrumental in the forming of the group. She had spoken to the social worker after several of the queer kids (and their friends) wrote or mentioned the desire for a place to talk about being gay in a gay-unfriendly environment. There were NO openly gay kids at our school until that year, until two boys whose courage I can't even begin to truly emulate, came out. One of them was in this teacher's class, and was one of the students who wrote about the issue.

I was impressed at the time that this teacher would attend the picnic and bring her partner, but it wasn't until years later that I actually realized what an amazing thing she did. In the town I grew up in, there simply were NO visible gay people. The gym-teacher-lesbian jokes circulated, and occasional other, similarly unkind rumors - but there were NO out queers in that school or that community. And, as evidenced by the attitudes of other students and the principal, when we attempted to go public with our nascent GSA, it was an environment that was extremely hostile to gay people. At a bare minimum, it was grossly, offensively ignorant of the needs of gay students; the ever-delightful principal said "i can't have a support group for every kid who gets a pimple," as if that was the equivalent of being queer.

In a town where very conservative religious people dominated the scene (Mr Neubauer said - and I don't think it was a joke - that our town was the only one in New York to carry Goldwater in that election year), being an out queer teacher must have been an impossibility. To say, publicly, that you, a teacher, were also a lesbian - that was a very dangerous proposition. I don't know what would have happened if it became known throughout the community that an actual lesbian!!! was teaching Our Children!!! but I can imagine, and none of my imaginings are very nice.

So for this teacher to voluntarily attend our sad little picnic, with her partner, after being closeted for who knows how long - my god! what a thing to do! what a gift to give your students, some of whom weren't even really her students.
And how crushingly sad, to have to live and work and teach for years and years while hiding. One of the "It gets better" project videos is a silent one, from two queer teachers who keep their faces hidden and who hold up cards with text on it. It's heartbreaking to see these women saying "it gets better," even while hiding their faces. But they are saying: We are here for you. We, your teachers, are here to help you.
And this teacher, who wasn't my teacher, did a herculean job of this. She went to the social worker and said: these kids, my students, have a need. they need a safe space and safe people to talk with about being gay in a place where gays are erased. they need help. they need more than i can give them, because my position is tenuous. but they need help.
and we got it. she made that happen. she said, silently, through what she did: I am here for you. I know how you feel, more than you can possibly imagine. and at that picnic she said: I trust you enough to bring my partner. I trust you enough to be fully myself with you.
It's an expression of care that blows my mind to think of now.
I wonder what it felt like, for her, to walk with her partner across the lawn to the picnic tables where we sat, a bunch of 17 and 18 year olds preoccupied with boys and girls and college and the end of school and ourselves and our own lives.  I wonder if she was scared, or proud, or if her partner was scared, or proud, or bored. Not bored; I can't think bored was in it.
I wonder if that teacher knew, or knows, what she did for us all, and how much it mattered.
The courage and actions of quiet everyday people, in their quiet, everyday lives, can sometimes make a world of difference. It's not heroic, it's not grandstanding, it may not even be noble or proud; but very often, teachers provide us with a safe space in which to be ourselves, which is one of the biggest gifts anyone can ever give.
It's what Fred Rogers did, essentially, except it's squads of teachers, saying and doing (in dozens of ways): "you're okay." and the good teachers, these teachers who say and do and make meaning in all these many ways, these good teachers hold the world at bay for a short while for us, while giving us the information and tools and knowledge we need  to carve out our own safe spaces. 
Some teachers sacrifice a lot, like the english teacher who ended up leaving her position after her books were banned. Some teachers risk a lot, like my not-my-teacher, coming with her partner to a silly little picnic. Others don't take obvious risks but, like Mr Neubauer, solidly, stolidly provide the tools and ability and confidence needed to make revolution happen, knowing exactly what it is they're doing, and why.

I am grateful to these teachers, and to all the teachers who were never my teachers, but who did for their students what mine did for me. The teachers who fought, quietly and loudly; who protected their students and gave their students the ability to build their own defenses; who made it clear that, though they may give grades and write hall passes and assign detentions and scold you for talking too loudly in study hall - who made it clear that, for all that, they were on our side.


Charlie said...

Beautiful post and tribute to your favourite teachers, loved it! I'm really impressed with the lesbian teacher and her partner. What a cool and memorable thing to do for you guys. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the "It Gets Better" videos. Part of me feels sad watching. Do you mind if I share a link to this post on my FB page?

kittens not kids said...

charlie: link away, my dear!

and yes: the "it gets better" videos are sad. I've only watched a few of them, and the stories people tell: heartbreaking.

and then, is "it gets better" the best we have to offer people who feel hopeless, especially teenagers, especially high schoolers who still have several years to go before "it gets better"?

but then, there's also the truth that: it DOES get better. EVERYTHING gets better after high school, I think.

Library Diva said...

Beautiful posts, sis. You never told me that story before about your picnic, and the teacher that came. It is sad that 'it gets better' is all we have to offer right now, but it's also inspiring to see how many leaps and bounds we've made in our own lifetime towards acceptance.

When we were born, homosexuality was still listed in the DSM. Around the time you were trying to form your alliance, I heard a speaker at college talk about gay marriage. To the maybe 40 kids in attendence, he spoke passionately and eloquently about the issue, and I remember thinking that maybe it was something my kids would see, but now it's legal in a few states and others are looking towards it.

I like the 'it gets better' message. It has a powerful message for everyone, not just gay students. This week, when doing the fire report at work, I was told to take out the psych stuff. I did it, but I really wanted to leave it in to show that it happens all the time and shouldn't be seen as any more shameful than chest pains or trouble breathing (the other 88% of the fire report). People feel like they're the only one, but they're not.

S J Eck said...

I'm proud to say the teacher who came to your picnic with her partner is my friend. I taught for 10 years in Akron and now realize that I could have been of some encouragement to certain students, but I didn't have the courage she did to do something.

Barbara said...

And I am The Partner. Happy to say we are still together for 26 years. No - I was not bored! As a teacher myself, I was invigorated! All change happens with small steps. As Holly Near wrote many years ago:

"Can we be like drops of water falling on the stone, splashing, breaking dispersing in air. Weaker than the stone by far, but be aware that as time goes by, the rock will wear away."