What's Left to Learn
This piece originally appeared in print in issue 04 of Hello Mr.
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 Clause was my mother. Even when I opened our washing machine to find immaculately wrapped presents, I believed my mother when she said 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 is 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 nonissue.
A key difference between Blair and Robert is that Blair, in diverse school settings, found solace in the teacher’s 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 like 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 on 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 illustrative 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 and 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.
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.