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Can I ask you a personal question?

June 11, 2015

“Hey! Hey Mr. Wilson!”

“Oh, hi Jeremy, what can I do for you?”

“Can we talk for a second?”

“Sure Jeremy, but let’s make it quick; it has been a long day.”

“Can I ask you a personal question? I mean… you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to…Really, it will be ok.”

Jeremy stands there looking at me with doubtful countenance. It had been a long day, one in which the only thing that was challenged for me was my patience; and, I still had to look anxiously to driving a wintery forty miles through the woods from the small Maine town where I was a French teacher to home. My car had been having troubles and the prospect of making it without having to test out the new cell phone bought just for that purpose—insurance—was not one to which I looked forward with anticipation.

“No, no problem, go ahead,” I replied with my keys in hand poised to open the car door, hoping sincerely that this encounter was not going to go on all evening. “Ask your question.”

“I have this friend who is coming back to town. Mike is great. We have been best friends for years. He has been away in the military and then stayed out of state for a while but is coming home and has to live with his folks. He isn’t looking forward to that so much, considering he lives here in the sticks like the rest of us; but gosh, am I ever happy. Mike is the greatest.”

“That is great for you Jeremy; I am sure you guys will have a great time together when he arrives” I said, all the while thinking that I had just been trapped and that the day was never going to end. “But you said that you had a question. Were you intending on asking me that question now or later?”

“Oh, sorry.” Not willing to miss his opportunity, Jeremy blurted out his question, “Are you gay?”

Stunned. I was absolutely stunned.

“Well, I must say that is a hell of a question to be asking. Why would you need to know, Jeremy, if I am gay or not? How would knowing something like that about me make a difference in how you learn French?”

Memories of my first day in teaching only three years earlier when my principal sat me down in his office to “explain a few things” suddenly occupied my mind. Jeremy’s question became very secondary to me right then.

There I was, fresh out of graduate school with no experience in front of a classroom, and my principal, a young athletic man in his forties who had managed to become head of campus after only a short while, was telling me that no matter what happens, I was not ever to have contact with a student behind closed doors. “Always keep the door open; and probably it would be best if you arranged your classroom so that your desk were always visible from the door. No students. Not girls or boys. In fact, it might be best if you arranged your meetings in the lounge out here [in front of your classroom], even if it is a bit noisier and less productive.” My eyes must have betrayed me; they read, “Why is he telling me this? What must he think of me?”

He responded to my inquisitive expression by stating matter-of-factly, “James, You are young, single and teach foreign languages.” He paused and gave me a knowing look, except that I didn’t know what he was referring to exactly. When I failed to respond adequately, he continued, “People are going to assume that you are gay, whether you are or not. I mention this for your own good since I think that you are going to be a fine teacher: the people in this school are very litigious. They love a good suit. If you are accused of something, it is hard to disprove a negative. So, just don’t have any closed-door meetings, OK?” Very brief pause. “Well, it was good to have this talk with you. Barb, my secretary will show you out.”

I was escorted out of his office, confused but knowing that I had not come out of any closet in my interview of a few weeks previous, and certainly had not, in my first day of classes, had the chance to lean one way or the other in my discourse. I hadn’t even, in my personal life, come to any conclusion about my sexuality—I only knew that it had been a long time since my last date, which I, of course, attributed to all the work I had been doing.

I was feeling just as stunned then as I was feeling with Jeremy now in front of me, awaiting some discussion.

“Oh, Mr. Wilson, I am sorry. I didn’t mean to ask you that way. Don’t worry I would never tell anyone. Your job wouldn’t be in trouble because of this. It’s just that. Well, it’s just that my friend Mike likes guys and his parents have had a hard time dealing with that. I was just thinking that, if you are, and I am not saying anything, but if you were gay, and could go out with him, and his parents could see you and get to know you… well, I am sure that they would be better with things. Just think about it. Mike is a great guy, like you, and if he could date someone who has gone on to become someone successful and bright, and then maybe they would ease up on him. Mike’s parents aren’t bad people; I just think they are a bit confused. You’d be perfect for them—so they could see that being gay is ok, that they can still love Mike like they used to…”

How do you respond to something like that? First of all, I hadn’t even come out to myself at that point, so I had to wonder what Jeremy sensed that I wasn’t willing to just yet. Secondly, affirming something like being gay to a student of a tiny rural high school could have easily jeopardized my situation at the school, and I was in no position to spend any time unemployed. Not to mention the fact that my then principal had already almost given me a favorable review, attenuated with comments like, “Never turn your backs to the students” and “Be mindful of your surroundings”. (Of course, as a Vietnam veteran, he was having me protect myself from the enemy, which high school kids can often appear to be!) I wasn’t sure how to read his comments yet.

Finally, and more importantly, Jeremy had paid me one of the finest compliments. He thought I was a great guy, and the kind that, if given the chance, parents who want the best for their son would find not only suitable as a companion but also find as an excellent role model.

Jeremy did not press for an answer, but I knew that he felt let down: not so much in me as he felt badly for his friend Mike who was going to have to listen to his parents extol the virtues of the “straight life” when it was already too late for that.

I, of course, spent the evening in quiet taciturn mediation. Why had I gotten myself into teaching in the first place? Underpaid, overworked, forced to confront many issues that had everything to do with my students and that had nothing to do with my subject matter. What was I thinking?

I didn’t need a course to teach me methods of teaching. I didn’t need class work in second language acquisition, as I had experienced all of those things for myself. I also realized that the students didn’t necessarily need someone skilled in foreign languages—after all, living in the deep Maine woods, one is very infrequently called upon to speak something other than English.

What I was challenged to see that day was that my students needed me. They needed an authentic me, ever so much as I also needed that person. I learned, over time, that what the kids in my classroom needed most was a role model. “Teaching from the seat of my pants”, as my friend and mentor had once described it, grew to mean to me that I needed to be willing to give of myself, not just give of my expertise. My students needed to hear, if just for a moment, the path that led me to them.

Indeed, I had let Jeremy down, and wonder how many others too from those first years of teaching. Jeremy was looking for a positive role model, of which he was, and all the other gay kids today continue to be, deprived.

I am not speaking of just “gay” kids; I am speaking about a fisherman’s daughter, a carpenter’s son, a nurse’s son, a postal worker’s daughter. I am speaking about all the kids with whom I have had the pleasure of working. Young people all need good role models and there is no reason why even the gay kids can’t have them, especially when one considers that they are the fisherman’s daughter, the carpenter’s son, the nurse’s son, the postal worker’s daughter. The only thing that keeps them from having the role models they need is the institutionalized hatred that is shown them by administrators who dare to tell new, suspected homosexual, faculty, and “We cannot tolerate gay people working with the kids in our school. The parents would never accept that.” The loathing is cloaked in statements like, “I don’t mind if gay people want to be Boys Scout leaders” while all the while hoping that their child never has to come in contact with one. The hurt comes from hearing fellow students say, “Oh that’s so gay”, to express their dislike of a classroom policy; or any of the other anti-gay slurs that fly by, masked in acceptance, unlike how racial slurs are frowned upon by everyone.

Jeremy was a student different from me, not in that he belonged to a different minority group or that he spoke a different language, or because he was differently-abled. Jeremy was different from me in that he was courageous. He eagerly sought out the role models that he needed to be able to live, assured that his uniqueness as a gay man was really as ordinary as having blue eye, freckles, or being left-handed. I wish I had had that same courage and that I had accepted then his challenge to become the man he had hoped that I could be—a great guy, and the kind that, if given the chance, parents who want the best for their son would find not only suitable as a companion but also find as an excellent role model. I am working on that challenge still.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Betsy Parsons permalink
    June 11, 2015 5:06 pm

    And thank you for meeting that challenge. Proud of you. Love, Betsy

  2. June 12, 2015 2:18 am

    James, this is a lovely, thoughtful, personal look at some of the questions we all face. I think about role models a lot, especially raising two boys in a two-mom family. All kids need them, and anyone can be one. I bet you’re a great one.

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