I am a gay Yankee teacher in the South

After 21 years in a private school in Cambridge, I took a job in Virginia. It was not what I expected

Published August 29, 2015 11:30PM (EDT)

  (<a href=''>llaszlo</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(llaszlo via Shutterstock/Salon)

Excerpted from "One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium"

When I start teaching writing and American literature at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for the Arts and Technology (ARGS) in Petersburg, Virginia, I’m nearing fifty with twenty-one years of teaching experience behind me. This is my first foray into public school teaching, my first time at the high school level. I’m worried what it will be like to be a gay teacher in the South, if it’s okay to be a gay teacher. I’m relieved to learn that the school has already established a Gay-Straight Alliance and excited that they’re looking for a new faculty sponsor. But I’m nervous about a lot of things, too: if I’ll be able to follow the rules and survive, if I can withstand the deadening public-school minutiae, if I’m going to be able to be myself in this setting. Before coming to ARGS, I taught French in a private middle school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a combined fifth- and sixth-grade classroom, and then several years at Virginia Commonwealth University, first as an adjunct and then a full-time faculty member, where I also received my MFA in writing. While at VCU, I volunteered to help with the admissions work for ARGS. Although a public high school, eighth graders have to audition for a spot. I helped with the literary arts adjudication, and after my first experience with both the hopeful middle-school writers and the current ARGS students, I was smitten. “It’s the high school I always wished I had gone to,” I told the literary arts chairperson. “Call me if you ever have an opening.”

It is immediately clear to my ARGS students that I’m not “from here.” When they learn I’m from Massachusetts, they nod knowingly; it all makes sense—my no-nonsense approach, my speech patterns, my bluntness, all characteristics, my students tell me, of Northerners. I’m a Northerner living in the South, a liberal in a conservative state, a lesbian in the Bible Belt.

And a teacher.

Luckily, because it’s a high school for the arts, being openly gay isn’t terribly difficult. The GSA—recently renamed Spectrum at the students’ request, to be more inclusive of the trans kids who feel the name Gay-Straight Alliance doesn’t speak to their needs—grows to be one of the largest clubs in the school with approximately fifty kids who attend regularly. In my third year at ARGS, I meet my partner; she is a new hire, the head of the theater department and the technical theater director for the school. The kids label us a couple before we ever acknowledge it ourselves, and when we chaperone prom together that first year, the kids grin at us knowingly.

“Y’all are so cute,” they say. We blush and grin back. We’re a little giddy ourselves, dressed up in fancy outfits, black pants and dressy tops. We go to dinner beforehand, and I feel like one of the kids. I never attended prom as a student, a fact that made me feel like something was wrong with me, that I must be hideous or boring or both.

But in my Massachusetts high school, you couldn’t attend prom on your own or with friends; you had to have a date. My partner and I are not the first same-sex couple to attend ARGS prom together. Gay kids go with straight kids, girls with girls, boys with boys. Kids attend in groups or show up on their own. At my first ARGS prom, a boy was crowned queen and a girl crowned king.

Still, there are challenges. Our previous executive director (aka the principal), while supportive of the GSA’s right to exist and our right to celebrate the Day of Silence, still felt the need to meet with me every year just to be sure we weren’t “promoting” homosexuality, a fireable offense, he tells me, for a teacher in Virginia.

What exactly does that mean? I ask him. “Are we saying, ‘Come be gay with us’? No, of course not. Are we saying, ‘It’s fine to be gay’? Yes, we are. If that’s ‘promoting’ homosexuality, then maybe we are.” He didn’t like that answer much. When students participate in the Day of Silence, inevitably there are a few whose parents keep them home that day. There have been students themselves who have protested against the Day of Silence, too, wearing Bible verses pinned to their clothing, proclaiming with handout cards that this is a day of “loudness” and taunting the kids who maintain vows of silence. There are parents who have harassed the executive director for allowing the day to take place at all, but he steadfastly supports its right and ours to exist. I am uplifted when I come to school for the most recent Day of Silence and the line of kids wearing red T-shirts and waiting to get “talking cards” and DOS stickers wends its way from my classroom door and down the hallway. I run out of everything before the last kid makes it to my room.

For the past couple of years, though, word on the street is that ARGS is easiest if you’re a gay kid, that it’s tough to be conservative and Christian. I have to laugh. That’s not my experience, though I do find it a refreshingly open environment. I’m not sure it’s ever easier to be gay and especially not in the South with its emphasis on church and family. Secretly, part of me is thrilled to hear this new perception of ARGS, but I also know it speaks to a tension between the conservative Christian kids—both white kids and kids of color—and those kids who tend to be more open about having LGBT teachers and classmates. While many of them are genuine in their beliefs, the conservative Christian kids are firm about the Bible and its stance against homosexuality: you can’t be gay and “saved.” And there are those kids—their friends—who defend others’ rights to believe what they believe. “You can’t fault them,” one kid tells me, “if that’s what they believe.” But after one such discussion, I have a moment I’m not proud of, and I raise my voice and tell the small class of fiction writers in front of me that I’m “so tired of people using religion as a way to hide and justify their bigotry.” I know I offend a couple of kids, one girl in particular, and later I apologize. But truthfully, it is how I feel and I am tired of it.

The tension isn’t a new one, and a few years ago, the GSA kids and I decided to hold a conversation with Youth Alive, the Christian student group (renamed more recently the Association of Christian Athletes).

We gathered in the gym during our club meeting time and participated in a fish bowl exercise, first with the GSA leaders sitting in the middle, surrounded by a mixture of GSA and Youth Alive members. We were a pretty large group and our circle covered a wide area of the gym floor. There was lots of excited chatter before we started, lots of nervous energy. We instructed kids not to sit next to their friends, and they were squeezed into the circle, smiling at the kids next to them. “Can I sit here?” “Hey, how are you?” They were trying to be light, but I recall thinking they were feeling as I did—stomach clenched, sweating, hoping that things wouldn’t get out of hand, that we all could really listen and respond without anger. When I looked around, I saw a mix of faces, white, black, brown.

Both clubs had solicited questions from each other about our prejudices and biases, about things we genuinely wanted to know: Does being Christian mean you can’t support LGBT equality? I’ve heard that being gay is a choice, so why do you choose to be gay? My church says being gay is wrong but I think gay people shouldn’t be discriminated against. What should I do? Don’t you think Jesus would have supported LGBT people? Do all Christians hate gay people?

My GSA kids in the middle circle talked. They offered their opinions and answered the questions, and the outside circle listened. The gym was quiet, only some shifting on the floor, an occasional cough. But kids’ attention seemed focused, eyes on the center. No one whispered. No one poked the kid next to him. No one guffawed or laughed, no one shouted out. The listening was deep.

When time was up, the inner circle switched to leaders of Youth Alive. Discussion resumed. Same quiet, same focused attention. I walked around the outer circle, listening too, watching the kids. In the outer circle, some heads nodded, some faces frowned. One or two kids glanced up and shared a look with me. Hey, they all seemed to be saying, this is going okay.

Our club meeting time is only forty-five minutes, so clearly no major differences were resolved that day, but we had started a conversation. When the bell rang and the meeting block was over, the kids applauded. Any tension or nervousness was released, and the kids erupted into chatter, upbeat. “Hey bro, I feel ya,” hands clasped, a pat on the back. We had seen each other as people and not as labels, and that was a start. We had even dispelled some myths or at least poked holes in one or two, so maybe now fewer kids will point fingers at each other. And each club might have even gained a few new supporters. We know this is something we should continue each year, though because of time constraints, we have yet to repeat it. Maybe now, more than ever, this conversation is needed again, with same-sex marriage now legal in Virginia, with the conservative kids feeling marginalized at our school.

Even as our little school gets a reputation among some students that it’s a great place to be gay, we don’t want to get complacent. We can’t. Each year new students come from middle schools without GSAs, schools—and families—where it still is not cool to be gay. And now, we have a few brave trans students who are paving the way for all the others who will inevitably follow.

I’m pleased to see how much the kids in the GSA—in Spectrum— already know about gender identity. During one meeting when we do “Step to the Line,” and I read the statement “Step to the line if you don’t identify as either male or female” and one student does, I’m hopeful. Change, I am reminded again, often starts with the young.

Back in my early days of teaching in Massachusetts, back before GLSEN and then even in its infancy, I remember a lot of fear, the paper bags we wore at Gay Pride, the word teacher written to let people know. We teachers were nervous about coming out but certain, too, that doing so would have a positive impact on our students. We— some of us, that is—treaded lightly, gingerly taking steps forward to be our whole selves in the classroom. But these days, as I enter my thirtieth year of teaching, the struggles are less about me and my sexual orientation, about how that affects me as a teacher, and more about how I can support the students and the struggles they face.

We have to help administrators figure out how to implement gender-neutral bathrooms, help the coach when the transgendered young man who plays soccer wonders where to change uniforms at away games, and help remind everyone about using preferred pronouns, that we all have the right to self-define, that gender isn’t a fixed binary. We like to think of ourselves as an accepting school—I like to think of our school that way—but there is still a lot of work to do.

Even in the rather open environment of ARGS, one trans student attempts suicide. Other trans students tell me about kids who constantly misgender them, use the wrong name when referring to them. Teachers do it too, they tell me. It’s unnerving and I can’t get what is so hard about calling someone the name they want to be called, using the pronoun they prefer using. I can’t even imagine what it’s like in other schools, where my students might get beaten or even killed, because if they struggle in our school, how in God’s name do they thrive elsewhere? In my thirtieth year of teaching, the struggles can feel sadly endless and sometimes overwhelming.

As a writing teacher, among other things I teach kids to think about their persona on the page. Who are they when they write? How do they want to come across to the reader? In both writing and literature classes, we talk about all their various selves, the ones that, in order to do their best learning, have to merge in the classroom but sometimes don’t—the selves they temporarily leave behind in their neighborhoods or sometimes abandon outright like their old friends at their home schools. We talk about identity and language and how it all ties together—the language they use to address their friends, their parents and teachers, how sometimes the African American kids are accused of “talking white” when they are back with neighborhood friends, how the language they all use for their response journals is markedly different and often much livelier than the language they use for paper writing, how this merging of their various selves is sometimes tricky.

We talk, too, about voice in writing, how it is so important but ever elusive, and especially, I add, when that voice isn’t connected to the self, when the voice feels arbitrary or forced. How else to convince the reader that a real person is behind the words on the page than to put a real person behind the words on the page—flaws and all? That elusive search for identity drives most of our literary discussions as well—about Hester Prynne, about Bartleby and Huck Finn, about Gatsby, Emerson, and Thoreau. Walt Whitman and "Song of Myself." Toni Morrison and "The Bluest Eye." About Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents." In our discussions of what it means to be American, there is so much talk of the importance of the self, and the very American idea that we can change our identity at any time—isn’t that partly the fuel of the American Dream, the idea that we can be born into one identity but can grow up to shape another? Back in the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald was already wondering if the American Dream was over; so, we wonder together, my students and I, what meaning the American Dream has for us now. How does living in America shape our identities? What relevance do any of these discussions have for American teenagers living in the twenty-first century? Or for me, their teacher?

Northerner. Lesbian.

Christian. Black. White.

Only child. Girl. Jock. Introvert.

Telling stories, I understood early on, is how we make sense of the world, or at least how I make sense of the world. Like all art, our stories reflect back to us some fundamental view of ourselves and the world, transformed and shaped into a thing of beauty and wonder. This is what I want to transmit to my students, the power of art in our lives, the power to transform our lives into art and beauty. This is the struggle, then—helping kids see why art matters, why they matter, why their lives, full of messiness and heartache and difficulties and joy, are the very stories they are both reading and writing. Being a teacher in the South, I realize, isn’t so very different from being a teacher anywhere, gay or otherwise. The struggles are fundamentally the same, but it is my fervent hope that as we continue growing and learning, we continue to provide the space for all students to safely learn—and teach—these lessons.

Excerpted from "One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium" edited by Kevin Jennings (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press. All rights reserved.

By Patty Smith

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