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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?”
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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.