I get the feeling that any of the three ways I started this intro might embarrass amy. Why? Because, in a nutshell–don’t ask which nut, she’s good people. There are some folks who you meet in life and just intuitively know that there’s something special about them. They often can’t see it themselves, but you can. I saw that in amy almost 20 years ago and as with so much in life, I was right! Well, many things. A few things. I was right in this instance, okay?
Now, I could tell you a number of stories about amy…but I won’t. She utilizes the same security service as Dorien Grey and I don’t want my legs broken. Suffice to say that if you ever want to hear about the old days back at university, buy me a Pepsi or some sushi and green tea and we’ll talk. In the meantime, here’s amy and her Face of Gay.
The Face of Gay (amy with a lower case /a/)
Ask anyone to tell a story about a person who influenced them and you’ll get all kinds, some clichéd or trite and some poignant or touching. Many of the stories will probably be about an older relative, a boss, or a teacher. Not this one, kids. This tale is one of a student who influenced his teacher.
I teach reading and writing at a small community college. Because the college has open enrollment, the variety in the student body is wide. I meet and teach all kinds of folks, from 15 year old homeschooled kids who are looking to earn college credit before graduating to retirees who are interested in courses for self-improvement. Mostly, though, my students are between 18 and 25. They are youngsters who are working on a college degree, and as Composition is a universally required course, they almost all make their way through my department.
I hadn’t been teaching very long, just a few years, when I met G. I’ll call him G not so much to protect his identity, but because I don’t remember his name. And though my memory of his name is clouded, what he taught me remains crystal clear.
Class met twice a week in the evening. G was a quiet young man, decked out in counter culture gear – mostly black clothes, band logos on his backpack and jacket, a wallet chain. He sat to the side of class, never making much eye contact with me or his classmates, but he wasn’t surly. Just introverted.
The second to last time I saw G, we stood outside the door of my classroom. He had asked me to talk in the hall. He was fidgeting and nervous. It was peer group day, the first one of the semester, and the essay he had drafted depended heavily on a narrative that involved his boyfriend. There was a problem with this, he said. He wasn’t exactly out, but he wasn’t exactly not, and how would he write this narrative without some huge explanation of why this other guy was more than a friend? His face was tight and tensed in anticipation of my reply.
I told him, “You don’t have to. You don’t owe anyone an explanation. None of the straight kids in class have to explain how they are connected to their significant others, so why should you?”
It was a rhetorical question, but I could see in his eyes that he was trying to find the words to explain it to me, a straight woman. I broke the silence. “The answer is: you don’t. The explanation you feel obligated to include isn’t integral to the story.” More worry in his face. I smiled and said, “Just tell the story.”
His relief was palpable. He didn’t cry then, but later in the evening I noticed him working at a computer, his eyes lined with wet. I wanted to say something more to him, but I thought maybe I needed to let him work on the words I had already said. He was just a kid, too young to have to take on the entire world and everyone who would judge him. I wondered if any other adult in his life had ever told him to simply be who he is, that they would support him no matter what.
The last time I saw G was the very next class. He thanked me for encouraging him, but he didn’t care to show his essay to anyone in peer group. I offered to read it personally in place of peer group. He smiled for the first time and said he was eager to take me up on the offer. But he didn’t turn the essay in that night and he never came back to class.
G wasn’t the first gay student I’d ever met, and he certainly wasn’t the last, but he is one of a handful of students who have reinforced some important lessons for me about being a teacher. First, I was reminded of a foundational truth of teaching: Sometimes, what I am teaching a person is not reading or writing; sometimes, it is a life lesson. In this case, the lesson was superficially about writing (‘include only the necessary details’), but more importantly that even though there is much negativity out there towards someone gay, there are also people he’ll come across in life who he could turn to and who would support him. I happened to be one of those people.
The other lesson that echoes in my heart is a lesson for everyone, not just teachers: what I say to others matters. I mean, it MATTERS. Sure, I easily recognized that G was in a state of severe anxiety there in the hallway, so I anticipated an emotional conversation, which triggered a natural sympathy on my part, but the words I said were important to G.
This is a lesson we all need to be reminded of periodically, but teachers especially. As a teacher, I’m in a position of authority, so even though I have trouble imagining myself as Powerful, from my students’ perspective, I represent Power. I can pass them, fail them, or boot them from class. If I tell a student she has to write her essay a certain way, she can debate it with me, but ultimately my pen is the marking pen, my word the final word. Asking me to talk in the hallway and sharing what he shared, G put himself on the line; I remember that every time a student trusts me with their heart.
I hope G is okay, wherever he is. I know I’ll never find him again and I know he’ll never know how deeply he touched my life, but I hope he has learned to be comfortable in his own skin and to love himself. That is my wish for all of us.
If you liked this entry, please leave amy a little love in the comment section below. Also, if you’d like to contribute a story to the Face of Gay, let me know!
The Previous 5 entries in the Face of Gay Series:
Kage Alan is the Jeepers Creepers watching, John Parr listening author of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Sexual Orientation,” “Andy Stevenson Vs. the Lord of the Loins” and the first book in a separate series, “Gaylias: Operation Thunderspell.” I never understood why John Parr fell off the radar and stopped making albums. He last album in the 90s, Under Parr, was pretty awful, but everything else was wonderful! Turns out he put out a double album in 2011 and did a US tour…which I bloody missed. Not happy about that, but I was ecstatic with the double album.