It was early 2014, just about six months before I left my teaching position in Glenview, Illinois, an adorable, upper-middle class suburb in Chicago’s esteemed North Shore. A few months prior, a colleague and I had sent an e-mail to parents of our fifth graders about a lesson we’d planned to do. We had hoped to have a conversation about the recently passed law around marriage equality in Illinois.
We found some resources, composed an e-mail to parents, and sent it to them, given the sensitivity around the topic. We wanted to make our rationale and approach clear. It wasn’t long before we had our principal and the superintendent pounding on our proverbial doors, upset with us for not consulting with them prior to proposing this lesson to families.
“This isn’t the place for your personal agendas, Paul,” my principal said to me. After all, between the two of us, I was the gay one (my colleague was straight).
Who better to blame than me?
After a harsh reprimanding and the banning of our current events lesson, we retreated back to our classrooms. I, for one, was discouraged. I felt dehumanized, that people like me didn’t matter, that we didn’t deserve a place in the curriculum.
A few months later, the superintendent came to speak with me about the “controversial lesson incident” of which I was a part.
“I’m really disappointed in the district’s decision to ban the lesson,” I said to him point blank.
“It sounds like you’re taking this personally,” he said back to me. “But this isn’t personal.”
He was right. I was taking it personally. And I had all the reason to.
Months later, it came time for my final evaluation. The year prior, I had been one of the district’s excellent-rated educators, a distinction only offered to nine out of over 400 teachers. I later found out that this year, I was up for the distinction again. My teaching met the criteria for excellent teaching, as I’d found out in my summative evaluation. But through a process of collaborative evaluation between all administrators (which violated our union bylaws, mind you), it was determined that I would not be awarded the excellent rating. It was, in fact, my decision to write a lesson that was LGBT-inclusive that made me no longer a candidate for this distinction.
It was the only thing that held me back.
My principal will tell you it wasn’t the fact that I wanted an LGBT-inclusive curriculum; she’d tell you it was how I went about making the decision. Months later, however, towards the end of the school year, I received an e-mail from her requesting to go through my classroom library, with the intention of weeding out any books that were inappropriate for young eyes. She was, of course, referring to LGBT-inclusive children’s literature.
Needless to say I was devastated. It was at that point that I’d fully disengaged from school. I didn’t belong. They didn’t want people like me to be fully represented in the curriculum. People like me were an inconvenience, a PR concern, and a parent liability.
Just let it go, Paul. I tell myself from time to time. Just let it go.
Those of you who know me and have heard this story before might very well be thinking the same thing. But I won’t let it go.
When we let things like this go, we say that it’s okay that it happened, and it was not okay that this sort of discrimination happened, especially in a school that claimed to value diversity, inclusion, and empathy. When we let things go, we cave to the shame and abuse rhetoric that dominates too many of our schools.
I have yet to receive any semblance of an apology from anyone in the district, and I probably never will. In fact, upon leaving the district, the only thing my principal asked me was if I was going to lift the grievance I’d filed against her as a result of my evaluation.
I said I wouldn’t. And I never did.
Even as I write this now, nerves course through my veins. My hands are shaky. I’m scared to own my story, because I’m afraid what other people will think. I’m afraid people will think I’m a pervert or a pedophile, when in reality, all I want is for it to be okay for people like me to be seen and valued in our schools.
This year, I moved back to Chicago after having spent three years in one of America’s most liberal cities, San Francisco. I never feared repercussions for letting myself be seen there. Despite the fact that my current school fully supports me and my fully embodied identity, that same fear paralyzed me this year. I never came out to my kids this year, despite the fact that I’ve done it in some capacity for the past three. Truth be told, it terrifies me when even considering uttering the words “I’m gay” or “My boyfriend and I” to an entire group of children now.
It’s a step back for me. And taking the step forward again feels exhausting, heart-wrenching, and unfair. The trauma of this experience has its hands grasped firmly around my wrists, its fingers digging into my skin. It shouldn’t have to be this hard to just be yourself, especially in a school.
It’s not all about me, though. It’s also because I know, deep down, when I look into the eyes of classrooms full of students each year, that I am looking into the eyes of children who are already a part of the LGBTQ+ community, and they don’t even know it. What’s more, I’m looking into the eyes of children who have the capacity to help lead the change towards a more inclusive America. I’m looking into the eyes of children who could be allies, that is, if we create a curriculum that is truly inclusive.
There’s a lot at stake right now. Nothing is guaranteed, and so it’s important that we keep telling our stories. It’s important that we don’t “just let go” of the trauma, abuse, and discrimination that so many Americans suffer on a daily basis, just because of who they are.
I hope you’ll share this, especially as we revel in this incredible opportunity to celebrate Pride this weekend. I hope you’ll make my story known to someone you know and care about because, whether you’re in education or not, you have the opportunity to impact the education system. You can make it a place where all of us our safe–even those of us who don’t fit the mold, even those of us who make others a bit uncomfortable.
It’s true we’ve made a lot of progress, but this progress is sacred and fragile. And we still have a long way to go.