My Fear Landscape

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10/2/2014, 7:21 PM: It is Back-to-School Night. I sit nervously in my classroom waiting for the Parents to be dismissed from the PTA meeting downstairs and sent to their child’s Homeroom. I have set up my PowerPoint on the SmartBoard, complete with colorful WordArt and exciting animations. I have my sign-in sheet ready by the door and my handouts copied and stacked. In a last-minute fit of nerves I get up to straighten the rows of desks for the 5th time. I  glance at the clock above the door. 7:23 PM. The Parents should be coming up the stairs soon, schedules in hand, ready to follow in the footsteps of their sons and daughters in a fast-forwarded version of a regular school day. I shake the anxiety out of my hands and take a sip of water.

This is my 9th year as a teacher and I usually look forward to Back-to-School Night. I certainly was a bit nervous that first year, but I generally enjoy meeting the Parents and telling them about my class and my methods. Not this year. This year, everything changed. This year is different because just 4 weeks ago, on the first day of the 2014-2015 school year, I did something I have never done….

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9/3/2014, 8:48 AM: The First Day of School is always stuffed with paperwork and announcements and handouts and scheduling errors and name-learning and a small bit of chaos, but in between all of that, my introductions in each class usually go like this: “Welcome to the 7th Grade! I am Mrs. Chappell and I will be your Homeroom Teacher for the entire year!….This is my 9th year here at NJMS……I grew up in Southern California, but moved here to New Jersey for College….I LOVE History and even though I know some of you may not realize it, there is something interesting in History for EVERYONE, since History is alive in everything!” I usually stay away from my personal life. Where other teachers may say something like, “I have 2 kids your age,” or “I have a newborn daughter,” or “I just got married so my last name is a little new to me,” I usually just skip it. But not this year. This year I have decided to lay it out there, right from the get-go. It is September 3, the First Day of School and I am no longer going to teach from the closet.

I decided before today that I don’t want to make a big deal out of it. I don’t want it to appear to my students like I am announcing something. I also don’t want to be accused of turning class time into my personal memoir time. I keep it simple: “I am married,” I say. “My Wife and I legally married in the State of NJ last November, just a month after Gay Marriage was legalized here.” And then I move on. I do sense a slight change in attention from my students. Some eyes dart around as if to ask others, “Did she just say what I think she said?” My racing heart-beat slows as I continue talking about my classroom. “I have a reputation at this school for running a pretty ‘tight ship’ – and that is very true. But I also am known to be a big goof-ball. I like to make class fun for you just much as I like it to be fun for me! Here’s my promise to you – you follow the simple rules and expectations that have been set out for this class each and every day, and you will see how exciting 42 minutes of History class can really be!”

As the day goes on, I get more and more comfortable with the change I have made to my introductions. Surprisingly, the students just seem to soak it in like they do everything else on the First Day. The first questions from students don’t appear until my 8th Grade Honors Class late in the day. Many of these students had me last year and therefore this new information seems to have a deeper shock value with them. When the hand goes up, right after I mention Gay Marriage, I am hesitant to call on the student. I don’t know exactly what I fear, but there is definitely fear at that moment. I take a quick breath and nod to her. She puts her hand down and asks, “How come Gay Marriage isn’t legal everywhere?”

I breathe.

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10/2/2014, 7:26 PM: Over the course of the last few weeks, I have gotten more questions from students about my Wife. Just normal stuff, really, like, “What does she do?” and “How long have you been together?” I braced myself for emails from Parents in the days following my “announcement”, but none came.

Yet here I am, just moments away from seeing them all face-to-face. What if they have been waiting for tonight? What if they have formed a Coalition Against That Lesbian Teacher and have held secret meetings? What if this is the moment they’ve waited for to pounce? I take another sip of water.

Glance at the clock. 7:27 PM.

More water. Straighten the desks. 7:28 PM.

Replace the pen by the sign-in sheet in case it ran out of ink in the last few minutes.

Sip of water. Have to pee. No time. 7:29 PM.

Re-stack the handouts. Check the PowerPoint. Did I forget anything? No time. 7:30 PM.

What is keeping them? Is the PTA meeting running late? Is there a fire? Maybe tonight was cancelled and I never got the news. Maybe I should go home. Yes, maybe that is best. 7:31 PM.

It definitely must have been cancelled. 7:32 PM.

But then I hear the sounds and voices in the stairwells and the doors are opening and the Parents are pouring into the halls. Just like that, the night is underway.

I stand at the door to my classroom, introducing myself and shaking the hands of each and every parent that comes to my room. I gesture toward the sign-in sheet and kindly ask each one of them to take a handout. Some parents have questions about their son or daughter’s schedule or how tonight works. I explain that they will spend 7 minutes in each class, Periods 1-8, and  will have about 2 minutes in between each one. The whole thing usually lasts until around 8:45 PM.

By 7:37 PM, our Vice Principal is on the Loud Speakers: “At this time, all Parents should be in their child’s First Period Class.” That is my cue to begin.

I go through my entire spiel: Curriculum, Textbook, Homework Policy, and Contacting Me. After all these years, I have it down to a science, and am usually just finishing up with “If you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail me since we have such limited time tonight,” when our Vice Principal is informing the Parents that they are to now move onto the next class. As I finish up, just on-time, I start to wonder why I worried in the first place. What was I afraid of? There’s not even time tonight to organize a mob of the CATLT. I start to relax.

And then it comes. Despite the fact that the transition period to the next class had been announced, one Parent speaks up. “My kid told me you’re Gay.” Ice shoots through my veins. I am not sure if it is anger, fear, anxiety, or shame. I reply with, “Yes, that is accurate.” The parent responds: “I’d appreciate it if you’d stick to teaching History and leave the Gay Stuff out of the classroom.”

Now I know that ice I feel is anger.

I pause for just a moment to steel myself for what may come next. I look directly at the Parent when I speak. “As a Public School Teacher in New Jersey, I have a strict Curriculum to follow. Each and every week, I submit detailed plans to my Supervisor, complete with Core Curriculum Content Standards and 21st Century Skill Objectives. My Supervisor drops into my class periodically to check that these plans are being followed and keeps records of such visits to submit to the State. I can assure you, I indeed ‘stick to teaching History’ in this classroom. However, as a Social Studies teacher, I often incorporate Current Events, Political News, and Election Discussions into my lessons, all part of my Curriculum. As a result, some of the ‘Gay Stuff’ you refer to may find its way into my classroom. If you have a problem with that, perhaps you should consider Home or Private School.”

And then all Hell breaks loose.

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This is My Fear Landscape.

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Cat’s Outta the Bag

So it happened. Without even thinking about it…it happened.

I have several students (the “Groupie” kind of kids that a teacher tends to collect year to year that hang around after school and come visit more often than necessary) that have become quite persistent in uncovering my personal relationship. They have become fixated on my “significant other”, clearly set on my admission of being a Lesbian. They have asked, “So what is your spouse like?” or “Can you tell us about who you married?” I am no fool – I knew where they were going with their questions. But the truth is, my life is still mine to protect. Never to hide. Just to protect. I have always said that if a student ever came straight out and asked me if I had a Wife, I’d never lie. But of course, these students haven’t been that bold.

Today after school and after tutoring, the same Groupies showed up to chat as I packed up my things. On the wall next to my desk, I have a picture of me at my wedding with all of the teachers from school that came that night. It’s an impressive picture, with close to 30 coworkers! The girls were pointing and giggling at the sight of their teachers dressed so royally, and one asked, “So where’s your husband in this picture?” Without skipping a beat, my reply was, “I don’t have a husband.” How funny it was that it didn’t even phase me. How interesting it was that I felt no hot nervousness on my face. I did not hold my breath. I didn’t regret it. In a way, I felt relief. Relief that the first droplet of water has now been released, and perhaps what can now follow is the rest of the river.

It took a moment for the girls to register what I said. Then, one by one, they turned to me, shocked looks on their faces, displaying their realization. Perhaps they never thought I’d be so nonchalant with my “big reveal”. Perhaps they expected this secret that they think I’ve guarded to be harder to liberate. But to me it never was a secret – just a piece of my life I kept protected.

Of course what followed were dozens of questions about my Wife, my life and my past. I told them that, as I’ve explained to them before, I’d rather not discuss my personal relationship in such detail. However, I promised that at some point, I’d answer their questions.

Maybe in the near future, one of the discussion points of our developing club “Unity Link” can focus on LGBTQ issues and I can open up about my experiences. I don’t know yet. But I am very proud of this first drop.

Now brace yourself for the river.

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Tolerance, Acceptance and UNITY

I took the first steps this week to create an on-campus club similar to the nationally recognized “Gay-Straight Alliance”!

I started by emailing my school Principal, with the basic idea. He responded back to set up a meeting for the following afternoon. To the meeting, I brought a few of the ideas that I had for a mission statement and how to advertise the new club to the students.

My biggest fear with the creation of a club like this is that it will turn into a source of embarrassment. I would never want the members of the club to feel like they had to defend their involvement against harassment at school. I would never want the club’s purpose to become counter-productive. My principal had the same concerns. We had a very productive “brain-storming” session about how to best move forward with the idea and came up with something that I am so proud of!

We decided that it would not be best to create an official “Gay-Straight Alliance” at the Middle School level. We realized that it would be difficult to create the safe environment that we are hoping for, without a prior track-record of trustworthy members and/or advisors. We chose instead to move forward with a “social club”, promoting it as an environment encouraging acceptance and tolerance. I named the club “Unity Link” and drafted a Mission Statement to present to our Guidance Counselors and to our Board of Education.

Mission: Unity Link is an extra-curricular club and social organization that connects students to each other and to the New Jersey Middle School Faculty through peer support, leadership development and discussion. The purpose of Unity Link is to provide a safe environment for students to form alliances and inter-personal relationships that can help strengthen individual confidence. Unity Link will also create a platform to combat teasing, discrimination, harassment, and bullying school-wide. A secondary benefit of the organization is to provide a direct “link” from this alliance to the NJMS Faculty Advisor(s) of the club.

 Why Unity Link is needed: A 2013 survey of Bullying in the United States indicated that one in four kids are bullied on a regular basis. The same survey showed that about 77% of all students reported some kind of verbal bullying. Out of that 77%, 14% have a severe reaction to the abuse, leading to poor self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide.* Student polls have indicated that when an organization like Unity Link is present on campus, students feel safer and more supported. **

The response to the Mission Statement was incredible. The Guidance Counselors on-campus seem very excited about this and so am I. We are still awaiting Board approval, but I am very happy that this first step went so smoothly. Hopefully, in just a few weeks, I will be having my first meeting!

*BullyingStatistics.org, **GSANetwork.org

Top 10 Reasons Why Gay Marriage is Wrong*

1. It’s Not Natural

Being gay is not natural. Real Americans always reject unnatural things like eyeglasses, polyester, and air conditioning.

2. Other People Will Be Gay

Gay marriage will encourage people to be gay, in the same way that hanging around tall people will make you tall.

3. It Will Lead To Other Crazy Behavior

Legalizing gay marriage will open the door to all kinds of crazy behavior. People may even wish to marry their pets because a dog has legal standing and can sign a marriage contract.

4. Marraige Isn’t Open To Change

Straight marriage has been around a long time and hasn’t changed at all. Women are still property, blacks still can’t marry whites, and divorce is still illegal.

5. The Sanctity of Marriage Will Be Broken

Straight marriage will be less meaningful if gay marriage were allowed. The sanctity of Britney Spears’ 55-hour-just-for-fun and Kim Kardashian’s 72-day-highly-profitable marriage would be destroyed.

6. Marriage Should Produce Children

Straight marriages are valid because they produce children. Gay couples, infertile couples, and old people shouldn’t be allowed to marry because our orphanages aren’t full yet, and the world needs more children.

7. Gay Parents = Gay Kids

Obviously gay parents will raise gay children, since straight parents only raise straight children.

8. It Is Not Supported By Religion

Gay marriage is not supported by religion. In a theocracy like ours, the values of one religion are imposed on the entire country. That’s why we have only one religion in America.

9. A Male And Female Role Model Is Required

Children can never succeed without a male and a female role model at home. That’s why we as a society expressively forbid single parents to raise children.

 10. It Will Change the Foundation Of Society

Gay marriage will change the foundation of society. We could never adapt to new social norms. Just like we haven’t adapted to cars, the downfall economy, or longer life spans.

*Taken from TheOtherTeam.com

Gay Marriage

A Resolution for the Real World of Twenty-Fourteen

I am usually not a believer in New Years’ Resolutions. It’s way too common for someone to set a goal January first, and forget about it by January thirty-first. It’s also a bit irritating that one can hope to wipe away the past years’ laziness with the turn of a new one. But as the clock ticks down to midnight on Twenty-Thirteen, I find myself setting one very honest, very serious goal.

A few weeks ago, one of my 7th Grade students came to me and asked if she could talk privately. I have acted as a kind of mentor to her for the last year or so. She had some major problems at home and her attitude towards elders and authority figures landed her in a lot of trouble as a 6th Grader. Last year, she ended up repeating Grade 6 – that was when I got involved. She began coming to me for extra help with homework, tests, projects, etc. She also began seeking advice from me about family relationships and some of her friendships. So, when she said she needed to speak with me, it didn’t alarm me – but I also wasn’t at all prepared for this particular conversation.

I knew something was up when she began to appear nervous. This girl does not get nervous. She is confident and strong – never nervous. I asked her if she’d rather write down what she needed to tell me and she nodded. She quickly scribbled a note on a post-it and handed it back to me. The note read, “I am kinda dating a girl.”

Yikes.

I found myself in a situation that I both feared and desired. I feared it because of the many ways this conversation could go South – or how my part of it could be misconstrued. I feared it because of the paranoia that she’d find out about me. But I desired it because this was why I became a teacher. This was what I wanted – to help kids. To be there for them when no one else seemed to be. To be the mentor and elder that they could trust.

She expressed her own fears to me – that she didn’t think she was gay and that she didn’t want people to call her “a lesbian”. I did my best to lend her my thoughts. It went something like this:

“I don’t exactly have a traditional view on sexual orientation and the labels that go along with it. To me, nobody and can label  you unless you give them permission to do so. If you do not consider yourself gay, then you’re not. However, perhaps you should worry less about the label and more about finding whatever it is that makes you happy. Your generation seems to be much more open about exploring gender identity and sexual orientation than previous generations. All that means is that perhaps you don’t know what makes you happy just yet – and that’s perfectly OK. I tend to look at humans like atoms – like in Chemistry Class. Atoms want to find others to bond with, to be happy. When they bond with another atoms, it’s because they have found balance. Maybe humans are the same. We bounce around, discovering the world around us until we find the atom that perfectly balances us. To me, the balance is all that matters – not sex or gender or labels.”

By the end of the conversation, I felt liberated. I was so proud of the fact that I was able to help her with that particular struggle. She thanked me for my help and left saying that she felt better about the whole situation. I figured that was the end of it. I was very wrong.

Later that week, that same student showed up with three more friends that had questions about their own struggles with identity. I sat there realizing that these 4 students are just the tip of the iceberg. I work in a school of 925 pre-teen adolescents. They have questions. They have fears. They have pain. There is a void in my school, and likely thousands across the country, where a safe place should be – a club or group of some kind to give these students a place to talk.

That is my goal. My New Years’ Resolution.

I did some research and found an organization called the “Gay-Straight Alliance”. To be honest, I can’t believe I didn’t get on this sooner. I feel ashamed that I have been a Lesbian Teacher for 8 years and am just now getting serious about something like this. If it weren’t for that particular conversation with that one student, I am not sure I ever would have gotten serious about it. But now I am. I am going to create a Gay-Straight Alliance Club.

Perhaps somewhere through the creation of this club, I can find a way to come out to my students. Perhaps by giving them a safe place to talk and discover, I will see that the best place for me isn’t in the closet.

Vows 11.29.13

On November 29, 2013 I married my Soul Mate. I mean “Soul Mate” as literally as someone can possibly take it. If anyone were to express to me that they do not believe in Soul Mates, I might kindly respond with, “Well, then you haven’t had the chance of witnessing it yet.”

Our Wedding was everything we wanted it to be. It certainly wasn’t the kind of Wedding most people dream up – but to us it was absolutely perfect. Neither of us can think of a single thing that went wrong all night. Frequently during the reception, we stole small conversations with each other, pausing to take in the Beauty of our friends and loved ones all there to celebrate and support us. The room was so full of Love…I can still feel it.

We chose to write our own vows, selecting works of Music and Literature to quote. I read mine a hundred times before the ceremony, trying to prepare myself enough so I wouldn’t cry. But the words are so powerful, so true, and so meaningful…my voice quivered and cracked throughout the whole thing. I have heard some people say that their whole ceremony is a blur – not mine. I am so lucky to have every moment tucked away in my memory. I hope those emotions I had standing up there holding Jamie’s hands are as strong in 50 years as they were that day.

I am still flying sky high…

“I have chosen most of my vows from my favorite book, The Alchemist, by Paolo Coelho.  The book is about a journey to discover dreams and fulfill life’s desires. I know without a doubt that that is what we are doing here today. This is my Personal Legend. You, J, are my treasure.

“In the book Coelho says, ‘If you can concentrate only on the present, you’ll be happy – you’ll see that there are stars in the Heavens. Life will be a party for you, a grand festival, because life is the moment we’re living right now.’ I feel that way each day I am with you, and vow to do so the rest of our lives.

“There are people in the World that don’t believe in the love we share. ‘But maybe people who [feel] that way never learned the universal language. Because when you know that language, it’s easy to understand that someone in the world awaits you, whether it’s in the middle of the desert or in some great city. And when two such people encounter each other, and their eyes meet, the past and the future become unimportant. There is only that moment, and the incredible certainty that everything under the sun has been written by one hand only. It is the hand that evokes love, and creates a twin soul for every person in the world. Without such love, one’s dreams would have no meaning.’

 “’Cause I understand you, we see eye to eye/ Like a double rainbow in the sky/ And wherever you go, so will I/ Cause a double rainbow is hard to find’*”

*From Katy Perry’s song “Double Rainbow” from her new album Prism

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10 Reasons Why Drag Queens Make the World a Better Place

The Incomparable Jinkx Monsoon*

The Incomparable Jinkx Monsoon*

10. Entertainment – The job of a Drag Queen is first and foremost to entertain. If you were to speak to any Drag Queen about why they do what they do, I’m certain they’d all have their own reasons. Each Queen has a story that made them who they are today, both in and out of drag. But at the heart of each is an entertainer. That pure joy you see as you watch a Queen on stage, putting her heart into whatever her craft has led her to do, is something that can put a smile on any face. That is life-saving “entertaintment”.

Brittany Lynn phillymag.com

Brittany Lynn
phillymag.com

9. Commitment – A Queen’s closet is no joke. She has wigs and shoes and lashes for days – or years rather. And clothing isn’t all she has in her repertoire. So many Drag Queens can do multiple impersonations. Some can sing. Many do comedy. That kind of commitment seems like it’s fewer and farther between these days.

8. Fashion – Queens have style! And I don’t necessarily mean the what’s-hot-and-what’s-not kind of style. Fashion doesn’t always have to be dictated by magazines. I just mean polished and proud of how they look. It’s an impressive feat to look so on-point as a boy and smokin’ hot a girl.

Jessica Wild as both Bride and Groom in the wedding challenge on RuPaul's Drag Race Season 2.

Jessica Wild as both Bride and Groom in the wedding challenge on RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 2.

7. Creativity – The Drag World is a culture rich in unique creativity. Not only do Drag Queens have their own lingo (one that makes little sense to the uninitiated), but they are even bringing their artistic influences to the music world these days. There’s songs like RuPaul’s “Tranny Chaser” and Sharon Needles’ “Kai Kai” that even poke fun at their own culture. You can find campy craziness in Alaska’s “Nails“, with the chanted lyric, “If you’re not wearing nails, then you’re not doing drag!” My favorites are the parodies of popular songs. Willam Belli’s “Chow Down (at Chick Fil-A)” featuring Detox and Vicky Vox remakes Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On (For One More Day)”. The trio recently collaborated on another creation in “Blurred Bynes“, a hilarious montage throwing shade at Amanda Bynes and her not-so-mature antics. And a must-hear is Mimi Imfurst as she sings her parody of “I Will Survive” entitled “Another Lie“, referring to the “tiny” fib told by a male about the [desired] size of his nether regions. 😉

Alaska Thunderf#%$ 5000, Star and runner-up of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 5

6. Cajones – And I don’t mean actual testicles (although they have those, too). I mean courage. It takes more courage than many could fathom for a man to dress in women’s clothing and parade around in public. Many Queens share stories about the first time they dressed in drag and how liberating it felt. But the world, as accepting as it’s becoming, is still a scary place. Bigotry and hate threaten that liberation each time a Queen steps out her door. Seeing their courage can give us all hope.

5. Beauty – What fascinates me most about Drag Queens is the illusion. I can’t get enough of watching the Boy turn into the Queen. To me, it’s Beauty in such a true form. When I put on make-up and do my hair, I may spend about 20 minutes on the whole project. To watch what a Drag Queen must do to become the women within is breathtaking. It’s not an easy Beauty. It isn’t effortless. It’s laborious. It takes time. It takes energy. And at the end of it all, each Queen is on display for critique and judgement. And yet it’s the Beauty and the Labor that keeps her coming back to the high of being in Drag. It is, without a doubt, truly beautiful.

Maddelynne Hatter in Leland Bobbe's Half-Drag portraits project.

Maddelynne Hatter in Leland Bobbe’s Half-Drag portraits project.

4. Fear – With every act of bravery comes a little bit of fear. Sometimes when we recognize a fear within ourselves, we are embarrassed by it. We try and bury the fear, cover it up, ignore it. But when we see acts of bravery overcome fear, it gives us a glimmer of reality. We begin to recognize that everyone has fear – even the coolest, calmest, bravest of heroes. Fear is real. A Drag Queen may put on wigs and layers of makeup and 6-inch heels, but underneath it all there is a little bit of fear that reminds us that they are real.

3. Defiance – What’s a Drag Queen without a healthy dose of Bad Kid? Just the definition of Drag Queen proves that they don’t follow the straight path dictated by the squares of society. That alone makes me green with envy – throw a lace front wig and couture dress on top of that and I can say that I am officially jealous of Drag Queens.

2. Patience – The art of drag definitely doesn’t come easily. To give you an idea of what a Drag Queen does to get ready I included a video below titled “Drag Becomes Him”. The video is of my all-time favorite Queen, Jinkx Monsoon. She is querky and bizarre and silly. As a boy, she has wild red hair and a goofy laugh. As she transforms herself into Jinkx she becomes her and the boy just melts away. It takes a special kind of patience – but what an amazing reward.

1. Inspiration – And finally, the number one reason why Drag Queens make this world a better place – INSPIRATION. Even if a large part of the world doesn’t want to accept Gays and Gay Culture, we’re here. There are countless adolescents out there struggling with their sexuality and where they fit in. Somewhere, there’s an awkward gay boy that has a picture of Jinkx Monsoon in his school notebook and uses it each day as a promise of a better future. Maybe he’s from a small town, maybe from a big city. Either way, he needs someone to show him that being different and being gay and being fabulous are not things to be ashamed of. And maybe someday he’ll be able to express his own creativity in an equally fabulous way – because Drag. Queens. Rule.

*The Featured image for this post is of Jinkx Monsoon starring with Major Scales in “The Vaudevillians” at the Laurie Beechman Theatre in New York City. It is an incredible show and a must-see! Get tickets here! But do it soon – after November 19 she takes the show on an international tour!