What's Left to Learn

Hello Mr. Magazine - - CONTENTS - Khalid El Katib

There are cer­tain truths—sur­prises—from my child­hood that I spend con­sid­er­able time re­flect­ing on, won­der­ing how I couldn’t have known. The first is harm­less: I won­der how I could have been vir­tu­ally the last kid in the 4th grade to not know that Santa Claus was my mother. Even when I opened our wash­ing ma­chine to find im­mac­u­lately wrapped presents, I be­lieved my mother that they were for a neigh­bor.

When I ap­ply my sex­u­al­ity to this ex­er­cise in re­mem­ber­ing, I am struck by how many adults around me were likely gay. Most front of mind are an el­derly neigh­bor and his room­mate and a never-mar­ried, mid­dle-aged teacher who lived only with birds that she oc­ca­sion­ally brought into the class­room for show and tell.

That teacher was a for­ma­tive force in my grow­ing-up. She took a spe­cial lik­ing to me and was es­pe­cially ag­gres­sive in get­ting me (shy, awk­ward, and un­com­fort­ably po­lite) to get dirty at re­cess, to be more so­cial. I never once thought that her spe­cial at­ten­tion was em­pa­thy for my be­ing gay. I never even ques­tioned that she could be gay.

Per­haps this blind­ness is a phe­nom­e­non most eas­ily ex­plained, at least in part, by another in­tri­cacy of youth: We, as their stu­dents, could not com­pre­hend that our teach­ers had lives out­side of the class­room. To see them gro­cery shop­ping was odd and un­set­tling, to see them at a pub­lic pool bor­dered on hor­ri­fy­ing, and to see them hold­ing hands with a spouse shifted our worldview. Teach­ers did not live out­side of the class­room, and they cer­tainly did not love.

Robert Bene­dict, who is just shy of sev­enty years old and taught for thirty-five years, is the heart­break­ing an­tithe­sis of this mis­con­cep­tion.

When Robert re­flects on his years in the class­room, he most quickly re­calls his per­sonal life, which was in­vis­i­ble to his stu­dents. Not be­cause they were whim­si­cally naïve, but be­cause as a gay ed­u­ca­tor, his life was off-lim­its. “Teach­ing was al­ways dif­fi­cult. For me, it was al­ways don't ask, don't tell.”

Robert’s iso­la­tion in his pro­fes­sion was com­pounded by his com­pli­cated ro­man­tic life. “It was one thing to be gay, another to have a lover, and a third to have a lover with AIDS.”

In 1990, Robert’s part­ner tested pos­i­tive. He was given two years to live and lived for six­teen. Robert re­mained his care­taker through the end–feed­ing him, bathing him, hold­ing him when he died.

It wasn't un­com­mon–even in Robert’s last years of teach­ing–to hear how gay a text­book or desk was, that a par­ent was be­ing “such a fag.” But his most dif­fi­cult days were when con­ver­sa­tions in the teach­ers' lounge turned to week­end plans and spouses; Robert’s part­ner was dy­ing, and he couldn’t say any­thing. He was forced to sub­sti­tute si­lence for small talk. “It wasn’t easy, and I for­got about it some­what.” His voice cracks.

For Robert, his years in the class­room too of­ten seemed to be a con­tin­u­a­tion of the bul­ly­ing he ex­pe­ri­enced as a scrawny fif­teen-year-old when he was con­stantly ac­cused of be­ing gay. As a twenty-

three-year-old teacher just start­ing, the par­al­lel was at its most ag­gres­sive, “Kids would call me gay, and I couldn’t say any­thing. I walked away–it was a con­tin­u­a­tion of the same thing I had been do­ing my whole life, walk­ing away.”

“I was in school from age five to sixty-seven.” The venue changed, too much stayed the same.

When a well-re­spected gay as­sis­tant prin­ci­pal at his school passed away in the late 2000s, the school ig­nored the ex­is­tence of his spouse in their re­mem­brance. “It was a sub­ur­ban high school, af­flu­ent, mostly lib­eral, with a gay-straight al­liance.” When, four years later, Robert ex­pressed how heart­break­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence had been to a for­mer col­league, she di­rected her sym­pa­thy strangely, say­ing, “It would’ve been a great learn­ing op­por­tu­nity for the school sys­tem.” Robert was out­raged de­spite her good in­ten­tions. “How dis­gust­ing is that? A learn­ing op­por­tu­nity? She didn’t un­der­stand what I was say­ing. It’s about show­ing re­spect for hu­man be­ings.” After that con­ver­sa­tion he came out to her–he sus­pected that she knew, but after decades of work­ing to­gether he said it out loud.

At twenty-four years old, Blair Mish­leau en­tered the class­room after Robert left it. He is in his third year of teach­ing and while his ex­pe­ri­ence has been ex­po­nen­tially bet­ter, it is not with­out sim­i­larly quiet suf­fer­ing.

Blair spent his first two years teach­ing in con­ser­va­tive dis­tricts–serv­ing a de­mo­graphic that isn’t typ­i­cally ac­cept­ing of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity. He cur­rently teaches at a pro­gres­sive char­ter school where his gay­ness is mostly a non-is­sue.

A key dif­fer­ence be­tween Blair and Robert is that Blair, in di­verse school set­tings, found so­lace in the teach­ers' lounge rather than si­lence. Most teach­ers didn’t mind that he was gay. “Teach­ers gen­er­ally were my big­gest cheer­lead­ers. They were more con­cerned that I was do­ing my job and sup­port­ing them–was it my turn for lunch duty?”

He felt most ten­sion with ad­min­is­tra­tors and re­lates a story not un­like Robert’s from years ago. “When ad­min­is­tra­tors brought their chil­dren on re­treats or were talk­ing about week­end plans with their spouses, I felt some ap­pre­hen­sion and, hon­estly, just frus­tra­tion at the dou­ble stan­dard.” But he was em­pow­ered enough by the times and cir­cum­stances to re­act when he was able: “If some­one asked what I was do­ing over the week­end or if I was see­ing any­one I was al­ways hon­est. I re­ally rel­ished in the abil­ity to be hon­est be­cause it made peo­ple un­com­fort­able. I ap­pre­ci­ated shar­ing the dis­com­fort rather than me own­ing all of it.”

And while Blair thinks that sys­temic change needs to come from the top, his most af­fect­ing sto­ries–those that il­lus­trate just how com­plex the is­sues can be–are about how he has in­ter­acted with his stu­dents every­day. The “teach­able mo­ments” Blair finds him­self in bring out both his strong­est and most anx­ious sides. He is bravely able to change the stu­dent who says, “Mr. M, would you ever be friends with a gay per­son? I wouldn’t!”

“Are you guys my friends?” And when they cheer yes, he punches, “Well, I’m gay.” His kids fall back and snap, “Oooh,” as if they had a mic to drop.

But he’s un­com­fort­able–this level of open­ness means some kids won’t give him a hand­shake or a fist-bump in the morn­ing. It means snick­er­ing and, given the eth­nic pop­u­la­tion of the school, it means for­eign words as kids walk past–the para­noia that it’s about his sex­u­al­ity or that it’s just that, para­noia.

His ex­pe­ri­ences day in day out prompted him to en­gage with the ex­ec­u­tives that ran his teach­ing pro­gram and ad­vo­cate for change. His push­ing is par­tially re­spon­si­ble for his teach­ing pro­gram’s evo­lu­tion. “They’re mak­ing re­ally great strides to rec­og­nize the chal­lenges that gay stu­dents and teach­ers have to deal with and own­ing the fact that they are not cur­rently do­ing enough.”

But no amount of train­ing or open­ness can com­bat the re­al­ity that to be gay in a class­room is un­com­fort­able and will be for some time: prej­u­dice is rarely so per­va­sive as it is with im­pres­sion­able and un­fil­tered kids.

It wasn't un­com­mon–even in Robert’s last years of teach­ing–to hear how gay a text­book or desk was, that a par­ent was be­ing “such a fag.”

In his first year teach­ing, Blair re­counts an early mo­ment of panic when a quiet stu­dent un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally raised her hand to con­trib­ute. “Well, like. For you, Mr. M. Let’s say you have a… girl­friend… or a boyfriend or what­ever,” She mum­bled the last words, but they stung an un­pre­pared Blair who couldn’t tell if she was gen­uinely cu­ri­ous or try­ing to throw him off his game like stu­dents more com­monly do with spit­balls and pa­per air­planes.

Blair beau­ti­fully ar­tic­u­lates his ex­pe­ri­ence am­bigu­ously in the closet, “It was like drop­ping milk into wa­ter. Ev­ery ac­tion and decision I made was clouded by my aware­ness of how I couldn’t fully be my­self.” My sev­enth grade so­cial stud­ies teacher was a sharp con­trast from my kind third grade teacher: he coached the ju­nior high bas­ket­ball team and was stereo­typ­i­cally chau­vin­is­tic and ar­ro­gant. More­over, he was prone to tan­gents and sus­cep­ti­ble to ed­i­to­ri­al­iz­ing the his­tory he taught. I re­mem­ber one les­son that had noth­ing to do with HIV / AIDS drift­ing to the topic. He took his usual stance, lean­ing con­fi­dently on a desk, and in­tro­duced his opin­ion as fact like he of­ten did. “You want to know why only gay peo­ple got AIDS back when it first ap­peared? It was a com­mu­nity thing. They felt sorry for each other. They felt that they de­served it.”

I play a ver­sion of this over in my head now and then–I have been hear­ing that teacher in my head for almost twenty years. I won­der how pro­foundly it would have im­pacted me to have been taught by Robert–to not only know how wrong my teacher was but to know that gay men are ca­pa­ble of love and have the grit to sur­vive its loss. Or to have been taught by Blair who is gay and un­afraid and young like I was.

“It was like drop­ping milk into wa­ter. Ev­ery ac­tion and decision I made was clouded by my aware­ness of how I couldn’t fully be my­self.”

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