Monday, December 21, 2009

Why did I do it?

I did it for Matthew, Gwen, Brandon, Lawrence and Carl. They are not the only ones I did it for, but it was Carl who pushed me to do it. It’s his fault.

What did I do?

I came out to my 5th grade students.

I did post this on my Facebook page, but I also decided to write about it here and, as I am constantly reminding my students, include some details as to where it all came from.

It all began with one word: Change. The universal theme of Change intrigued me. Change is difficult for most people; I can’t rearrange the furniture without hyperventilating and/or advanced negotiation. Ask my husband; he would love to rearrange the furniture a lot more frequently. That and repaint the house. I wanted my students to explore Change through Literature (How does the character change in the story?), Change in Math (What would happen to the pattern if we…?), Change in Science (What happened when we added the baking soda to the vinegar?), and perhaps the most intriguing; Change in History (What might have happened if the Europeans had never crossed the pond? What has changed over time?)

I’m rambling again, I know.

I wanted my students to see that 1) Change is inevitable; 2) Change can be positive or negative; 3) Change can be spontaneous or controlled; 4) Change can be slow or quick; and 5) People can cause Change.

In my school district, we are supposed to teach all the different History/Heritage/Awareness months; Hispanic, Black, Disability, GLBT, Native American, Women’s History, Asian/Pacific Islander, etc. There is almost at least one designation per calendar month. (I think only December, January and April escape designations.) October has two designations; Disability Awareness and GLBT History. (Strangely enough GLBT Pride month is in June, and therefore the only designation mentioned twice in the District Bulletin.)

Tying all this to Change was easy.

We started with defining discrimination. We listed groups of people who had been discriminated against. We then compared what we had studied about discrimination in prior grades and how things are now. That led us to realize things had changed. To dive farther into Change I assigned the students a project.

The project would consist of researching a person or event relevant to the month (I supplied lists of appropriate names and events) and prepare a presentation/report or some other product which would showcase the person/event and the change brought about by the person/event. I did not want to overload my students with a project a month (two in October!) with all the rest of their regular homework, plus I would have to grade them!! SO, I allowed them to sign up for one of the four months in the first semester; Hispanic Heritage, GLBT History, Disability Awareness, Native American Heritage. (Plus, I skirted the issue of ‘forcing GLBT studies’ on the students. If that is what the student chose, that is what the student chose. I had cleared all this with my very supportive principal.)

During this time I also began reading The Misfits by James Howe to them. The kids were enthralled by the book. Many wanted to read along with me, and also read the companion book, Totally Joe. So, I ended up making several trips to bookstores looking for additional copies. I highly recommend them!!!!

Six of my students signed up for GLBT History month and chose to write about Harvey Milk, Michelangelo, Camille Saint-Saëns, Billie Jean King, Peter Tchaikovsky, and Sir Ian McKellen. I was saddened no one chose Matthew Shepard.

I wear the Matthew Shepard Foundation pendant, sometimes over my shirt, sometimes under it. One of my students had asked me about it. I had prepared a presentation on Matthew and his story. When I explained he was attacked for being gay, one of my students exclaimed “He doesn’t look gay!” The rest of the class rose up in protest to his statement, “You can’t tell by looking at one”, “What does a gay person look like?” The original student realized his error and corrected himself. I even challenged them, So, you can’t tell a person is gay by simply looking at him or her?”

“No.” They responded in unison.

“So, I don’t look gay?”


“What if I told you I was?”

Silence. Raised eyebrows. Jaws dropping.


“Yes. I am.”

The difference between my 10 year old students and my husband’s 12 year olds is that his immediately asked if he had someone when he came out to them. Mine just said, “That’s cool,” and got back to work. (He did tell them he had me. They then gave him the third degree: what did I do? how did we meet?)

So, why did I do it?

Like I said, I did it for those who have been bullied, harassed or worse, murdered. To hopefully stop the violence.

I did it for those who are struggling with their identity now or who may struggle later on, to remember there are people who have been where they are and made it.

And I did it for me. I was tired of hiding in the classroom closet, of being dishonest to my kids.

P.S. My students did ask me at the beginning of the year, pre-coming out, if I was married. I said yes. Post-coming out, only one asked if I was married to a male or a female. I asked him what he thought. He still hadn’t equated the gay marriage question so he said, albeit hesitatingly, “Female?” I shook my head. “Oh,” and he went back to reading.

P.P.S. Neither I nor my principal heard one word from a concerned parent. Not one. And I teach in a low-income, impoverished, Latino community.

1 comment:

  1. Jeff, I always admire you and J. for many reasons, but teaching is one of the highest effort a human being can do and one of the least in recognition. And you deserve it.
    And this step is even more amazing, and just show to your students, and the rest of the world, the courage, the open-minded and the great man you are.