“This is not the forum for changing the world, Paul” my principal said to me from across her desk.
This remarkable phrase – referring to our very school – was the climax of a 25-minute shaming session, and the entire twenty-five minutes, my colleague’s and my faces stared directly into the disgruntled visage of our principal as she sat across from us. Just a half hour prior, we had been sitting in one of our teammate’s classrooms, celebrating her soon-to-be nuptials with a smorgasbord of teacher breakfast goodies, filled with pastries, salty breakfast food, and even some sparkling cider! But the bubbles were popped, the celebration was dimmed, and the joy disrupted as my principal entered.
“Can I see the two of you in my office?” she gestured towards me and my colleague.
We knew what she wanted. The night before, we had sent out an e-mail, telling parents that we’d be hosting a dialogue about Illinois’ newly passed same-sex marriage law, in an effort to not only create an inclusive environment, but also to help breed tolerance and empathy in the face of what could potentially be a significant change for our fifth-grade students.
We walked quietly down to the office, whereupon the door closed, and we were harshly reprimanded for poor decision-making and inappropriate conduct – merely for mentioning to parents that we’d be hosting a discussion. Our e-mail, as it should have, adhered to all best practices of social justice education: a lack of educator bias, third party materials that presented both sides of the argument, and the curricular relevance of the discussion, relating to our yearly arc of empathy, in addition to Common Core Standards surrounding informational text, synthesizing information, and forming arguments using facts and primary sources.
“I’m so incredibly disappointed in the both of you,” she continued, showering scores of shame down upon us.
“Well, I’ve never been prouder of myself,” my colleague replied. I smiled, honored to have such an incredible colleague and friend by my side.
She turned to me, “And Paul, you should know that the classroom is not the place for personal agendas.”
She was, of course, referring to the fact that I was the gay teacher in the room – the one who would so selfishly advocate for his own minority group, similar to how a black teacher or a female teacher might bring about discussions about race or gender equality. My heart sank, my shoulders drooped, and I suddenly began to feel defeated, for if the leader of my school was not ready to openly and warmly welcome the gay community into the school, how would I ever find my place in the school? But just a moment later, my self-pity was cleansed when the conversation climaxed with the following statement.
“This is not the forum for changing the world, Paul.”
Adrenaline pulsed through my veins, and my willful defiance nearly exploded out of me. I crossed my right leg over my left knee indignantly, held on to it, and nodded my head quizzically, in mere disbelief at the utterance that just left my principal’s mouth, for this was – and still is – exactly the reason that I teach. I teach because I can change the world… one student at a time.
As teachers, our secret superpower – our superhuman strength – is the ability to subtly change the world each and every day; and not through selfish motives, but with the intent of empowering our students and helping them find pieces of themselves they never knew existed. Through our actions, through our words, and by sharing our authenticity, we harness this invisible power that helps shape our students, and more importantly, that helps them to shape themselves.
I’ll admit, after this encounter with my principal, I sincerely contemplated leaving teaching altogether. I began to wonder how I would continue teaching under such overwhelming personal and ethical dissonance. But each and every day, I’d reenter my classroom, leaving my own drama and convictions at the door, and showing up to the bright faces that I loved so dearly.
They were the reason I was here, and they were the reason I’d keep coming.
What’s more, over time, I began to realize that by staying, I was doing exactly the opposite of what my principal said I couldn’t do. I was changing the world. Perhaps I wasn’t able to do the lesson my colleague and I originally intended, and perhaps my community was still hidden in my students’ periphery, but by staying, by being me, and by finding other ways to share my identity and share of myself, I was able to lead by example and show my students just what I had originally intended – that it’s not necessarily about who you love; instead, it’s about how you show your love.
Ironically, when we left the office that day, even though I didn’t realize it at the time, we actually had already done something to change the world. While my perturbed principal didn’t quite see it this way, we started a conversation, and we brought the issue into the limelight in this wholesome, suburban Chicago district. It showed me that I — and that all teachers — can change the world each and every day, and it doesn’t even have to be directly in front of my students.
While I was mortified at the time, I now hold a deep appreciation for my principal. I appreciate her, for she gave me an opportunity to hold onto my morals and to figure out who I was and what I was really doing in this big and scary world. If it wasn’t for her, I don’t think I would have found my true superpower, and I don’t think I would have ever realized just how much our small and seemingly insignificant actions have ripple effects and become infinite.
And I suppose, at the end of the day, it’s what keeps me coming back for more.