Looping, by educational definition, is the practice of having the same group of students for more than one year. At my school, this practice is routine, and both 4/5 teams have the same set of students for two years. While there are myriad academic benefits, I love the relationships that I am able to forge with the students over the course of two years.
The down side, you ask? At the end of fifth-grade, the kids become absolutely crazy. In fact, I feel like we are always surprised when March rolls around, and the kids are absolutely beside themselves, ridden with spring fever, hormones, and an insatiable yearning to move on from the confines of elementary school and into what seems like, to them, the freedom of middle school.
And this year’s group has manifested its pre-spring craze with an Instagram obsession, one where they have chosen to post pictures of each other, paired with their rumored “boyfriends” or “girlfriends.” Naturally, this led to a stern talking-to from mean Mr. France today. I gave the usual spiel about the dangers of posting gossip online and the possible severe implications of posting any sort of regrettable picture or utterance in an arena where others can see it. And of course, immediately following, I had a line of remorseful (or just plain fearful) students, ready to confess their transgressions or reveal the transgressions of others.
But what happened next, I wasn’t quite prepared for.
Two of my sweetest girls stared up at me with half-smiles, seemingly nervous to discuss their perspective on the now infamous Instagram scandal.
“So what’s up?” I said to them.
“Well,” they eyed each other, and returned their stare to me, uncomfortable smiles still apologizing on their faces. “We’re kind of nervous to talk about it.”
“Girls, this is a safe environment. Whatever you need to say will stay in this room,” I replied.
“Well, it’s kind of about you,” one of them said to me.
“Oh? Really?” I smiled surprisingly toward them.
“Well, it’s about something on your Instagram.”
Now, let’s be clear.
My Instagram is private, and I did that purposefully a long time ago. I also do not allow students to follow me, but just like every other Instagram account, all users can see my profile picture. At one point, I had a picture of another man kissing me on the cheek, and this is exactly what they were referring to.
My first thought was to go and have this conversation in front of another adult, mostly to make sure that my words were not misinterpreted. While I could have simply brushed the conversation off and said that it was “nobody’s business,” the last thing I wanted was to be plagued with the same regret from one year ago, coincidentally, almost at the same time.
Some might argue that it is just that: Nobody’s business. And those people are perfectly entitled to their opinions, but let me say this: Until you are gay, and until you have to constantly wonder to whom and when you can reveal this sort of information (while your straight friends do it so safely and effortlessly), you have no right to enforce that opinion.
So we moved across the hall and continued our conversation.
“Okay, girls, we can continue our conversation now. I’d just feel better if we had this conversation in front of Miss Schmidt, too.”
“Well,” one girl started, “everyone is saying something about you.”
“Well, do you want to tell me what they’re saying?”
She started to utter the same sentence. “Everyone is saying…” and then she stopped, looking at her friend some more.
“Is it bad or something? It’s okay. I can handle it,” I replied. Or something very close to that, when meanwhile, I knew exactly what they were about to say.
“Yea, it’s bad,” she confessed to me. “Well, everyone was saying that you were gay… and like, making fun of it.”
It happened, and I’d be lying if I said I was totally calm and collected during this conversation. While my exterior exuded an extremely calm presence, on the inside, my adrenaline seemed to be tearing each and every vein, making my extremities a bit shaky and my internal temperature begin to rise. But it was the opportunity I’d been waiting for, the natural passageway into a conversation about who I am, and who I should be allowed to be–no matter where I am or who I am with.
“Well, do you know what that word means?”
They both nodded and told me their definition of the word. Luckily, it was correct, both factually and politically, unlike a similar conversation from last year, where they didn’t quite have their facts straight.
“Okay, yes, that’s what it means. And yea, I am gay, but it’s nothing that anyone should really be making fun of. It’s all about how you say it; it’s like if someone’s tall or short or fat or skinny. Just because someone says I’m gay doesn’t mean they’re saying something bad. It’s true. I am gay.”
Not the response they were expecting–that’s for sure. What’s funny is that the conversation ended so casually, after they picked their jaws up off the floor, of course. What, in their eyes, and in mine I suppose, had been fantasized to be such a climactic and dramatic experience, really ended up being as anticlimactic as the next conversation.
In fact, as opposed to the climax of a story that eventually falls into its harmonious resolution, this instance felt like the spark that started a story, the point from which the story began to take off, the beginning of the rising action of many stories–not only my story as a gay teacher, but more importantly, their stories as young ladies: The stories where they learn to understand the relative unimportance of minor differences, the irrelevance of gossip and the rumor mill, and the fact that their teacher, who they could now see as a real person, was, in fact, gay–that their teacher was, or is, characterized by a word that once incited fear and discomfort in them.
Because now, instead of equating the word “gay” with something “weird” that only creates whispers and rumors, they can now equate the word “gay” with their fourth- and fifth-grade teacher of two years, someone who they first knew as their teacher: an avid reader, artful writer, problem-solver, passionate musician; someone who they first knew as another person’s son, brother, or friend. Moreover, and most importantly, they knew all of this about me before I was labeled with the word “gay.”
I cannot tell you how proud I feel today.