“Are you two married?” one of our little ones asked us, smiling with her big, brown eyes, romanticized by the idea of her two teachers being husband and wife.
“No,” my co-teacher replied. “I have a boyfriend.”
It was true that she did, but I was surprised at just how soon this question arose this year. Perhaps it’s indicative of just how inquisitive of a class I will have this year, or perhaps it was simply in the universe’s cards to deal this hand within the first week of school as a test of personal growth. While this question usually does arise, and while it makes perfect sense, I simply wasn’t expecting it so soon. The kids naturally want to get to know their teachers, and they become curious about us as individuals.
In a recent podcast, I spoke with my colleague and friend, Chris, about openness in the classroom. Too often, we err on the side of closing ourselves off, of not answering these complex questions. We keep up a wall up under the guise of authority, fearing that, should we get too close to our children, that we’ll cross a boundary or lose their respect.
But actually, quite the opposite is true.
Almost 50 years ago, Paolo Freire published Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a landmark educational text, intended to help educators and education leaders examine systemic oppression. In order to break down the barriers that oppression engenders in society, Freire provides insight into how educators can break the cycle of oppression, not only through social justice education, but also by engaging in a dialogue that makes oppression visible to both the oppressors and the oppressed.
Interestingly enough, we are all oppressed in some way. While our brains may immediately categorize people into two opposing groups–the oppressor and the oppressed–this dichotomy doesn’t always hold true. We all have pieces of our identities not fully manifested within our personas. As a result, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all individuals are placed comfortably into two opposing groups, but instead that all people silence pieces of themselves, for one reason or another.
And so, in the moments that transpired after that first question, I was faced with a choice in class this day–a choice I’d been faced with many times before–to be oppressed or to continue to be an oppressor. I wasn’t sure I was ready to out myself, even though I had now done it three times prior. Thoughts of what the parents may think came into my head, despite the fact that my co-teacher had so casually shared of her romantic relationship.
I flashed back to sitting in my principal’s office, shamed for attempting to bring the topic of same-sex marriage into my classroom, and later disciplined by the superintendent and the school district for inviting a discussion on marriage equality into my classroom.
The little girl with big, brown eyes turned to me.
“Paul,” she said, “do you have a girlfriend?”
I replied succinctly, “No, I don’t.”
I look back on it now, and I realize that I was, indeed, falling into Freire’s aforementioned cycle of oppression. I was silencing a piece of myself, a piece that I was afraid would lead to judgment and conflict, even in a place as gay-friendly as San Francisco. I had no evidence to suggest my children or their families would not have accepted me. In fact, I had insurmountable evidence for the contrary: I’ve always been accepted with open arms here in the Bay Area, even when I’ve revealed my sexuality.
And naturally, as fate would have it, my succinct response was not enough to quench my child’s inquisitive thirst for knowledge and her hunger for connecting with her teachers. She bravely continued the dialogue.
“Why?” she continued, wondering why I didn’t have a girlfriend.
I stood, puzzled about what to say. I wasn’t sure the word gay would fully register; I also wasn’t sure I wanted to be that declarative anyhow. Sexuality is gray, and simply having a boyfriend doesn’t make one gay. I knew I wanted to choose my words wisely, for our words imply far more than they convey explicitly.
“Because I don’t really want one,” I said back, smiling, as we began to play Addition Math Tower on the table. As she pulled pieces out of the Jenga-inspired game, I knew there was no going back. I knew just what was about to spring from her lips, as she began to open her mouth.
“Why?” she muttered again, displeased with my lack of transparency.
I paused. “Because I have a boyfriend,” I replied matter-of-factly, secretly and anxiously awaiting her reaction.
“Oh, that’s weird,” she said to me.
Truth be told, my heart broke for a second. But I knew it wasn’t her fault.
“It is different,” I said back to her. “But why do you think it’s weird?”
She clearly didn’t know what to say, so I took the lead and broke the silence.
“I understand. Sometimes when things are different, they seem a little weird,” all the while knowing this little girl was trying to rectify the cognitive dissonance in her head, and God love her for doing it vulnerably, with an open, courageous heart.
She finally interjected, “Well, I just don’t like when people make fun of you. I feel bad for you.”
It had been a long time since I had been this humbled by a child, seeing the world through her eyes. To her, I was different, and to her, I was the oppressed, even if she didn’t have that precise word to describe it. And I knew the only way to break this cycle of oppression was to engage in this dialogue, to validate her perception, and to help her resolve this dissonance.
“You know,” I said, “people will always find something to make of you for. Some people are just like that. All you can do is remember that a lot of people love you, and that people who say mean things, are really just sad themselves.”
The conversation resolved harmoniously, melting into the next plucking of a block from Addition Math Tower. This small lesson, emerging from the bravery and curiosity of one small child, only beginning her never-ending journey of trying to understand the world, was almost as ephemeral as the conversation itself, slowly slipping into the exposition of the ever-evolving narrative of what would become our school year.