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.

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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.