Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Defined By How We Treat Others

Here is an exchange of emails between me and my former high school homeroom teacher, who also taught PE. I wound up sending the email by snail mail via the Wallenberg Community Foundation.

This post is also in honor of any teachers who read this. You never know what your students are learning from you.

Hi Mr. N,

About two months ago I met another Wallenberg grad. I don't know when she graduated and she could be anywhere from 15 to 5 years younger than I (but probably around ten, though really, it's hard to tell). I don't remember her name, either, at this point.

I was telling this story about you that I sometimes tell, in which I mentioned "you by your nickname At the end of the story she asked if I'd gone to Wallenberg, and it turned out that she figured that out because I had used your nickname. My impression is that she had had you for class (as opposed to homeroom). So I've been thinking about that story and I thought perhaps I should ask you about this.

When I was in 10th grade, during the "family life" unit in PE, you brought in a panel of people from an LGB organization. I think there were three or four people, there to talk about being gay or bisexual. I think they answered questions. I don't exactly remember.

In retrospect, I think this was a pretty bold thing for you to have done. Were there even "opt out" forms in those days? Was there a lot of blowback from parents? Did you ever bring in a panel like that again?

What kills me though is to think that you had gone to all of this effort to bring these people in, and they had gone to all of the effort to come in and speak to a bunch of teenagers who may or may not have been interested, and I didn't "get it." Five years later I figured out that I wasn't straight, and it shocks me to this day that I didn't start thinking about it that afternoon. Of course, it was a different time, I may have been particularly clueless, and blah blah blah.

Though I wasn't ready or able to hear their message (other than that of tolerance, which was an easy sell for me), I wanted to thank you for bringing in that panel all those years ago.



Here is his reply, which he signed with his first name. I was not in the class he describes below; I had PE during first period that year.

Thanks so very much for the very touching note you sent. How nice to be remembered. You have no idea how much notes like yours are appreciated. You don't get much feedback in teaching and it's nice to know that someone remembers you from time to time.

I DO remember that class very vividly. It was part of the Family Life curriculum and the group I brought in was from a district approved speakers bureau. We HAD sent out permission slips and everyone, or their parents had the option to "opt out." No one did.

What I do remember was that of all the topics we covered in that six-week unit, it was the only one in which parents opted to come to. I don't know if you were in the class that exploded, but, as I recall, it happened during the last class of the day.

Once the speakers were finished, there was a question and answer period (you have a good memory!). I'll never forget, G__ C__ asked the million-dollar question: How do gays "do it"? The answer that was given was a "no holds barred" type of answer, and from then on, no question was off limits.

Finally, at the end of the class, one of the parents (who shall remain nameless) asked me and [another teacher] why these people were here and what was the purpose of all this explicit discussion. I meekly tried to explain that the speakers were part of an approved group of presenters and that everyone, including the principal, the parents, and the students knew for weeks exactly who these speakers were and why they were there. Then, much to my sheer relief, S__ A__ jumped up and started screaming at the parents that we, the students, had every right to hear what these folks were saying. That it was parents like them that were trying to hide things from us. With that, the place exploded in support of S__, led, I think, by L__ P__. There was chaos for what seemed like forever, but the bell finally rang and everyone left.

Well, I was called into the [principal's] office and he said the district office had called. He asked me what had taken place. I told him everything from start to finish. All he asked me was if I had provided permission slips. When I told him I had, he said he's take care of everything - and he did. But I'll tell you, for several weeks I was very cautious about answering the phone and opening my mail I thought for sure I was going to be called downtown for some sort of reprimand (or worse). But the more I thought about it, I was more and more convinced I had done the right thing.

The whole purpose was to try to get across to kids that there were/are alternative life-styles out there and that no one should be ashamed of who they are or what sexual preferences they may have. I wanted them to know that there are many others out there just like them and that they are not "odd." It makes me so happy to know that for someone like you, this class may have helped you discover yourself and who you are. We are not defined by our sexual preference, our work, or who we happened to be with. I believe we are defined by how we treat others.

So, thanks for the kind words.

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