Blue Star Experience

I went to the most amazing workshop today.

A colleague from work stopped me on the way into the building on Tuesday to let me know that the Coordinator of the LGBTQ Center at Montclair State University would be at the Boys and Girls Club in our town to give a seminar on sensitivity and awareness of LGBTQ youth in our schools. I wanted in immediately. It was very last-minute to put in for a Professional Day and get myself signed up for the workshop, but I am so glad I was able to quickly put all of the paperwork through because today was the best eight hours of professional development I have ever completed in the 8+ years I have been a teacher.

Even though I consider myself very educated on gender pronouns, gender and sexual preference spectrums, and trans-related issues, I was very excited to learn as much as I possibly could to be a better educator and role-model for my students that may identify as LGBTQ. When we first got to the workshop, the instructor, Brian, had us write our names followed by our used gender pronouns on a name tag. Mine said, “Cali – She/Her/Hers”. I understood right away what Brian was trying to do – open up a conversation about how not everyone identifies with the perceived gender pronouns. For example, some people who are outwardly female may use the pronouns “they/them/their”. But what was interesting was that some of the other professionals there didn’t get it right away. I noticed some of them even omitted the gender pronouns  from their name tags – perhaps confused or maybe unsure of the point. It gave me a bit of a chuckle that so many people at the workshop had no idea that traditional gender pronouns are not utilized by everyone. For once, I felt the privilege in being gay. I felt more “normal” in today’s conversations than many of them appeared to feel. I loved that feeling.

We went around the room and introduced ourselves with three prompts: Say your name, Give your used gender pronouns, and Explain why you signed up for this seminar. There were about 30 others there today from all over North Jersey. Most were administrators or guidance counselors – I think I was only one of two classroom teachers. Four of us identified as LGBT or Q – everyone else would have identified themselves as “straight”. We did quite a few exercises and activities throughout the day that were incredible, but one of them hit me so hard that I can’t get it out of my head.

Brian handed out stars to each of us. Some were yellow, some were purple, orange or blue. Mine was blue. First we were instructed to write our name in the middle of the star. Then, Brian told us to write a different thing on each “arm” of the star: On the top, we put our best friend’s name. The next arm we were told to write the name of a family member(s) in which we usually confide. Next we wrote a community to which we belong (for example “Church” or “School” or “Soccer Team”). On the fourth we wrote our dream job. And on the last arm of the star Brian said to write our hopes and dreams. My star had Jamie as my best friend and my father as my confidant. I wrote “LGBTQ” as my community and “positively influence kids” as my dream job. My hopes and dreams said, “Get pregnant and have babies.”

Brian had us all get up and form a circle. Like I said, there were about 30 of us. I began to glance around at the different colored stars and spotted 2 other blue stars like mine. I saw about 8 orange stars and about the same number of purple stars. There were a lot of yellow.

Brian told us that for this exercise he was going to ask that nobody leave, and nobody talk. He asked us to remain completely silent and just focus on the importance of his words. I can’t remember each word exactly, but it’s burned well enough into my head to recount the following.

Brian started to read from a piece of paper. “You are now all members of the LGBTQ community. You identity in some way as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning. This is now your ‘coming out’. You start by confiding in your best friend. If you have a blue star, your best friend is supportive and understanding. They tell you that they will be there to support you and that they do not consider you as any different than before. If you have an orange or purple star, your best friend tells you that this changes things for them. They don’t understand this part of you. They need time to deal with it and cannot be emotionally or physically available right now. If you have an orange or purple star, fold back that point of the star to symbolize this. If you have a yellow star, you have lost your best friend. They do not understand and never will. If you have a yellow star, tear off that point of the star and drop it to the ground.

“You continue by coming out to your closest family member. If you have a blue or orange star, your family has accepted you. They have told your that they will support you no matter what and have followed through with that promise. If you have a purple star your family is struggling with your announcement. They have mixed feelings and are not fully supportive. Some of your family members have not shown support at all. Others claim they need more time to process this. If you have a purple star, fold back that point of the star. If you have a yellow star, your family is not at all supportive. They have told you that you are no longer accepted as part of the family. Tear off that point of the star and drop it to the ground. ”

The exercise, something that started as just a colorful star visual, got really real for me. We all could see where this was going. As Brian read more and more, our fates began to fall into place. My blue star remained untouched. My best friend, father, community and profession stayed intact. Meanwhile, pieces of the orange and purple stars were being folded away or dropped completely. And piece by piece of the yellow stars were piling up on the ground like confetti. They were supposed to be symbolic of our support groups – friends, family, work, dreams. But the yellow stars were turning into empty, pointless shapes. I felt my eyes well up with tears as Brian got to the last one.

“Your hopes and dreams are deeply rooted. They are in your soul. If you have a blue star you have the confidence and support to push for those hopes and dreams – to achieve your inner-most desires. If you have an orange or purple star you work as hard and you can to mend relationships and control your life, but you have to put your dreams on hold. They are not as important to you as they once were. If you have an orange or purple star, fold back that point of the star. If you have a yellow star, you have disregarded your dreams completely. You have turned to alcohol and drugs to cope with your life. You fall into a deep depression and let go of all hopes, dreams, and desires. You become one of the 40% of people in the LGBTQ community to commit suicide. Tear up the remaining part of your star and drop it to the ground.”

And as all 12 people with yellow stars tore up their paper, I lost it. It hit me full force how many in my community have that yellow star experience. Friends of mine popped into my head – friends that I had to see struggle with coming out, fighting constantly to stay afloat in a situation that so desperately wanted to drown them. And as I looked down at my hands, clutching a perfect, 5-point star, I was grateful. I was overwhelmingly grateful to have had the Blue Star Experience for real. I have friends and family and a community that support me. I have an administration that backs me up. And I have hopes and dreams that are still very much alive for me. But those broken pieces of orange, purple, and yellow stars are still so fresh in my mind.

The man next to me had an orange star and after all was said and done he had one point remaining. When we regrouped to reflect on the exercise he held it up and said, “What if, for many of our students, we are the only point on the star they have left.” And that is what I will remember every single day that I get to work with these kids.

I will never, ever forget that.

Ludovic Bertron

Ludovic Bertron

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All The Things She Said

Today I saw 146 students take a seat in my classroom throughout the day. As each class excitedly sat down, looking nervously around the room for some clue as to what lay ahead, I found myself preparing my words carefully. I had thought long and hard about how I wanted to conduct my classes today, but now that it was actually time to go through with it, I couldn’t help but feel a little nervous. At one point, I even thought I was going to chicken out. Today was the day I came out to my students.

A few months ago, I wrote a post entitled “My Fear Landscape” – a kind of flash-forward to today. What’s interesting is that today went very similar to how I had predicted in that post. When I wrote it, it seemed like a lifetime away. It felt like I had all the time in the world to prepare for today – and now it’s already gone. As I said in that initial post, I didn’t want my coming out to feel like an announcement. Basically, I started every introduction today the same way I always do: “Welcome to the 7th Grade! I am Mrs. Chappell and I will be your Homeroom Teacher for the entire year!” But this time I didn’t move on. For all 6 of my classes I walked over to the board where I had written my name: Mrs. Chappell. I referenced the “Mrs.” in my name and continued, “I am a ‘Mrs.’ because I got married last year. But my last name ‘Chappell’ is the one I was given at birth. My marriage is a little different than most because I married a woman, not a man. I may end up changing my name someday to match my Wife’s last name, but for now I’m ‘Mrs. Chappell’.” When I said this for the first time, I felt myself get a little red in the face and my heart started to race. But as the day went on, it got easier and easier.

As I said, I saw 146 students take a seat in my classroom today and out of those, 5 were in the wrong room. I made my little announcement to 141 students altogether. 4 of them never looked up from their desk. 2 made some sort of snickering noise. 14 smiled at me. 3 of them clapped  (I’m not kidding – they literally clapped). 11 of them turned to look at a friend. 1 raised her hand. And 106 didn’t react at all. I guess you could say it went well!

The student that raised her hand was in first period. I got a little nervous when I saw it – this could go very wrong. “My Fear Landscape” popped into my head again. I called on her and she said, “Could I ask a question that I hope won’t offend you?” I laughed a little and said, “Let’s hear it.” She asked, “What does that tattoo on your arm mean?”

Isn’t it funny the things we fear?

Today was just day one and I do anticipate some bumps in the road ahead. But with all I have learned about myself and the world around me, I wouldn’t trade today for anything.

9th Time’s a Charm

Today was the first day of my ninth year of teaching. For the ninth time, I walked into a newly painted school. For the ninth time, I got a fresh class list and all the possibilities that came with it. Nine times I’ve set up a classroom. Nine times I’ve sat through orientation, cracked open a new grade-book, put inspiring posters on the walls. Even after all these years, it all doesn’t seem to change much. But tomorrow, when the kids show up for the first time, I will do something I have never before done.

Over the course of these last eight years I have learned a lot…from the kids, from other teachers, and from my experiences. But I never could have guessed how much I learned from myself while writing this blog. When I first started writing, almost one year ago, I set a goal for myself – come out to my students. I have to admit, I didn’t really think I’d be able to do it. It’s not that I didn’t really want to – I just believed deep down that I would never find a comfortable enough place in my own heart to make it a reality. Well, it’s been a whole year of self-discovery and I couldn’t be more ready!

Wish me luck. Tomorrow, I come out of the closet….yet again.

Q is for Questioning

-In the leather-bound diary of a thirteen-year old girl-

Thursday April 3, 2014

5:12  PM

Dear Diary,

Omigod. Omigod. Omigod. I couldn’t even WAIT to get home to write about what just happened! Today after school there was this meeting for this new club at school, Unity Link. They posted all week that the meeting was to discuss LGBT and that is sooooo what I need right now. But I was, like, super nervous to just show up and spill my beanz. I mean, I tell YOU everything, Diary, but I can’t just talk about that kind of stuff out loud, ya know?

Anyway, I went and there were, like, 20 other people there and everything seemed cool. I was thinking, how are we going to talk with these teachers here? But then this other girl named Jahira was telling about how she likes this girl but her parents say it’s a phase and I was thinking, this sounds like me. But then the CRAZIEST thing happened.

One of the teachers started talking about how it’s sometimes hard to be open about yourself when so many people around you don’t get it. And I was starting to think, how would she know. But then she totally said she was gay! She was just like, I want to tell you guys that I don’t want to hide who I am and stuff, but, like, it’s hard at school and stuff. And then she was like, I’m married to a girl. OMG. I was going crazy.

So many people were telling their stories and this one boy Ray was even saying how his sister is gay – that would be cool because then you’d always have someone to talk to about it. And this girl Ash that I have in my science class was talking about transgender and I learned what “cis” means.

OMG it was the coolest meeting ever. We all said how we want to do it again so the teachers said they’d hold another meeting on MONDAY! Finally something that makes Mondays good! I can’t wait!

Mom is calling me to dinner –  taco night! PEACE.

Leap of Faith

Wow, it has been one crazy whirlwind these last few months! I took the task of Unity Link head on and I have been dedicating every extra minute at work to the cause. I am very pleased with how everything is coming together, but it is definitely exhausting!

Since the club (and concept in our school) is brand new, I wanted to build interest fast. What better way than with food? For the first meeting, I asked the teachers that volunteered as Advisors to donate snacks like chips, cookies, pretzels, water and soda. I worked with some of my Honors students to create colorful posters to hang around the school during the month of February. I also put a flyer in the mailbox of all of our Homeroom Teachers explaining the new club and asking them to read it aloud to their 1st Period Class. Finally, an announcement went into the daily announcements around the middle of February stating that the first Unity Link meeting would be March 4th (with a little play on words to “March forth in Unity”) after school in the Cafeteria – and that refreshments would be served.

Snack donations poured into my classroom from teachers for the next few weeks and finally March 4th rolled around. We were pretty much flying blind the day of the meeting, unsure of how many kids would show up. A few of us gathered in the Cafeteria and pulled down a few tables – enough for about 30. Since we announced that the meeting wouldn’t begin until 3:30 (30 minutes after school ended) we sat and waited for a bit. Through the cafeteria door windows we saw students starting to gather….and gather….and gather. By the time 3:30 rolled around, we actually had to Black-Friday-Style manage the doors, to be sure no one ended up trampled!

One-hundred-and-twenty-two.

That’s right – 122 students! I could not believe it. Sure, many of these kids were just there because they heard the word “food”, but it was a genuine testament to the fact that these kids need something like this. After letting them socialize for a bit, while enjoying free snacks, I took the mic and explained what the club was about. I answered a few questions and ended by asking anyone that was interested in attended future meetings to sign up by grade. Out of the 122 there, 106 signed up. It was incredible.

Since then, we’ve had a handful of meetings and have even started planning a video project, using Hunter Hayes’ “Invisible” as our inspiration. We’ve been keeping the meetings separated by grade since 100 students in one meeting would be too counter-productive. We have a “Topic Box” where students can anonymously suggest future discussion topics and each week, we’ve picked a new topic. It’s been a slow start, but successful nonetheless!

This week we’re trying something new. Instead of having the meetings divided by grade, all with the same topic, we decided to conduct 3 meetings after school in different rooms with different Advisors and 3 different topics. That way, the kids get to choose which is most relevant to their lives.

So here is where my Leap of Faith comes in because the topics for this week are:

1. Trust

2. High School and the Future

3. LGBT – Oh here it goes.

I am both incredibly excited and slightly scared to lead this LBGT discussion on Thursday. But, this could be the beginning of something amazing at my school and I am so happy to be a part of it. If this discussion helps a few of these kids, who’ve already expressed their insecurities with being gay, realize that they aren’t alone, then that is all I have been hoping for!

Wish me luck. 🙂

From greatleadersserve.org

From greatleadersserve.org

My Fear Landscape

* * * *

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….

* * * *

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.

* * * *

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.

* * * *

This is My Fear Landscape.

* *

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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