Earl and I still have the death of Jamey Rodemeyer, the 14 year old teen that committed suicide last Sunday as a result of bullying because of his sexual orientation, on our minds. Because the death took place relatively close to home with business connections with Jamey’s mother, Earl and I (and Jamie and Scott) have been wondering what we can do to help make the world a better place. Earl has organized donation efforts within his company and I am helping out in that department as well. We’ve agreed that perhaps the best thing to do is to continue be who we are with no apologies and for me to contribute where I can, even through this blog thingee here. Many others do the same thing, I am hardly unique, and hopefully the right words will reach the right person at the right time and a fatal loss can be averted. Education is always important.
I have been thinking about my high school years a little bit. As I mention on the “It Gets Better” video I made earlier this year, I don’t remember having an awfully rough time at it in high school. Yes, I was teased and I sure didn’t have much in the way of self-confidence, but for the most part I was able to shrug off how people were taunting me and exist in my own little reality until those that taunted me grew up. I also surrounded myself with a good group of friends. It’s a common path for gay teens and luckily the majority of us make it to realize that it does indeed get better. There are two particular incidents that stick out in my mind, though, that I don’t know that I have ever written down.
The first one I remember took place when I was a sophomore. It was the beginning of sixth period and biology class was just starting. The teacher was a man in his mid 40s with wild hair and a disheveled appearance. He was undoubtedly a football player back in his glory days. He used the same overhead projector slides every year and his dittos were always so light because he recycled the same material year after year. He was mechanical in his teaching and I didn’t really connect with him very well. Animals in the biology room were rarely in their cage, we’d often see guinea pigs crawling around on the floor during class.
The clock over his head said 12:21 and he was kicking off the lesson of the day. In a big booming voice he said, “Mr. Wing. Do you know what a homosexual is?”
The eyes of the 25 classmates around me all shot in my direction and there were several smirks. I instantly turned beet red and stammered and stuttered a little bit. An anonymous voice tittered, “of course he does.”
The eyes remained on me as did the those that belonged to the teacher. He wanted an answer. The moments seemed like they went on for hours. I started to speak and the disheveled man answered for me, “A homosexual is a human being that enjoys the sexual company of the same sex.”
I have no idea what he said the rest of the class. Small wonder I missed passing the state exam by one point. Not only was I very embarrassed by this small exchange, it was the talk of the rest of the afternoon. I decided I would never like this teacher nor if his wife wasn’t out on maternity leave, would I ever like her. I never spoke about this to anyone. Not my folks, not my friends. The person that shared the lab table with me leaned over at the end of class and simply said, “That wasn’t very nice of him.” We’d been in school together since kindergarten. She lifted my spirits from zero to 10 on a scale from 1 to 100. Her comment made me not be afraid of ever going to school again, for I felt like some sort of marked man.
Like many college bound high schoolers in my class, I took the accelerated social studies program my sophomore and junior year of high school. To make up for skipping World History I and cramming American Studies I a semester early, we had to make up a missed credit by taking our choice of either Ethics or Psychology the latter half of our junior year, as long as it was Ethics.
The discussion was about our personal ethics and the teacher, a hippie of the 60s and 70s generation, after a lecture about personal ethics and forming our own code that we would live our life based upon, had us put our desks into a circle so that we could have a round-table discussion. We would go around the room and discuss our beliefs and interject comments about each other. I was the first one up.
I started by saying that I was a good person and I believed that one could do anything once they put their mind to it. A classmate spoke up, we’ll call him Fred to keep him anonymous.
“John isn’t really going to go far in this world because of the way that he is.”
I looked down. I knew what he was talking about. There was no guinea pig walking across the floor this time.
“With this new disease and the fact that no one would really hire a sick person, he’ll never be a teacher. Who’d trust a guy like that to be their kid’s teacher?”
Another classmate spoke. The girl next to me said, “Just look at the way he talks and walks. You can hear it in his voice. Who’d elect him for office?”
I reached for the class ring that hung around my neck. It belonged to my girlfriend at the time, but she was more friend than anything. I had no interest to go any further. It was evident that I wasn’t fooling anyone.
A third chimed in, “It’s not like John can join the military or even work as a farmer. Unless he’s a florist.”
I looked down at my hands. I tried to steal the glance of another boy in the room, another one that I just knew was like me, but he wouldn’t look at me. He was looking out the window. The teacher spoke to gain control of the conversation.
The next thing I remember is the bell ringing. I was still looking at my hands. Everyone made a bee-line for the cafeteria since it was lunch time. I got up to walk out after everyone had left and I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“C’mon, let’s talk”, it was the hippie teacher. He made his way to the office.
“Are you okay?”
I burst into tears. Within two minutes, another teacher was in the office with me. She was the special education teacher for the entire school. I didn’t know her that well but apparently she had been briefed on what had just transpired.
“You know, you are very special in many ways, John. You are one of the most talented students I’ve ever seen in this school.” Our paths had crossed only once before, she had helped out with the school musical. The only other words she had ever said to me directly were during rehearsals, “wow you can fill this auditorium with your voice.”
“It’s okay to be different. I’m different. I’m in love with Herman and he’s the plant on my desk.”
I sniffled back the tears and laughed a little.
She said some more words to me that made me feel better. “Just be true to yourself. You’ll find your way and people will finally get you. Look at me, people get me and I’m nuts.”
I never had that teacher named Karen, but she probably made the most impact on my high school career. It’s funny about those teachers named Karen, another by the same name got me for who I was. It’s a good thing that she filled in for the regular teacher on maternity leave the year before.
I went into the cafeteria after grabbing my lunch. The other classmate that I had spied looking out the window asked if I was okay. I told him I would be fine and let it lie at that.
We never did continue that personal ethics discussion. The next day we moved on to something else and I have no idea what it was.
All of those impressions have lingered with me. Being singled out by a teacher, the confidence rattling of the comments of my classmates. But the one thing that stuck with me the most was what the teacher I never had said to me, “Look at me, people get me and I’m nuts.”
It’s okay to be me.