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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Scene Life, Take Two

An excerpt from Shallow Hal (2001), starring Jack Black and Jason Alexander:

Hal: You’re not serious! You actually think you’re more mature than me?!

Mauricio: You’re right…you’re probably more mature than me – but at least I have a biggerwilly!

[tick]

[tick]

[tick]

Hal: Yeah, bigger than a mouse’s.

Mauricio: What was that?

Hal: I said you’re willy’s bigger –

Mauricio: I know what you said – but, it took you like, 8 seconds. You can’t come back with a comeback after 8 seconds. You got 3 seconds…5tops! That’s why they call it a “QUIP“…not a “sloooow-p“.

Ever have those scenes in your life that didn’t quite play out the way you wanted them to? The kind where you wish you had all the time in the world to think of the perfect response? Or that you could just rewind time and do a scene all over again so you come out sounding like a champ? Well, let me tell you, that desire is HEARD on my end.

Scene 1 Take 1I consider myself a pretty well-spoken person. I am not the kind of arrogant jack-ass type that spits my views all over the place expecting everyone to just nod and agree. But I am also not the silent lamb breed that rolls over and takes it whenever faced with adversity. I pick my battles wisely, and when I feel something needs to be said, I say it.

But there are times, when the words I wanted to say just don’t come at the moment I needed them. I find myself replaying scenes of my life, rewriting my lines to make me the bad-ass champ they write in movies and shows. Olivia Pope meets Erin Brockovich, with a little Idgie Threadgoode thrown in there for good measure. Do I always regret the original words I chose (or didn’t say at all)? No way. But it sure is fun to play director and invent scenes that would have made my character pop on that screen.

Last Thursday was “Back-to-School Night” at my school. It’s when parents and/or guardians come in for a Meet & Greet with the teachers. They visit all the classes in their child’s schedule and learn the gist of what each class (and teacher) is about. As frustrating as it is to come back to work at night after a long day, I usually don’tmind Back-to-School night. I find it fun to explain what I do, why I do it, and the basic day-to-day of my class. I usually leave with a big smile on my face and a pep in my step because I just got to explain my cherished Personal Philosophy of Teaching 6 times to parents that clearly take an interest in the lives of their children (at least enough to show up!).

This year, however, I was not looking forward to the occasion because of one parent in particular. He is the kind of parent that is not at all satisfied with his son, the teachers, the administrators, the world – I mean he has some serious issues. But it seems he has taken a particular disliking in me over the course the last few weeks. He’s made it clear in recent emails and rants that I am “a terrible teacher.” The words hurt – oh how they hurt – but I try and focus on the kids (and his son really is a good kid) and on the positive feedback I get so regularly.

Needless to say, however, I was worried about Thursday night. During the time-slot designated to Period 3 when I have the above-mentioned student, sure enough Mr. MeanGuy shows up. I go through my spiel and end with the following: “Since tonight is not a conference night, I cannot take the time to answer individual questions about your child’s performance, but please feel free to e-mail me with questions, or you can schedule an appointment through our Guidance Department for an after-school conference.” I said this same thing to each class of parents that night, as well as to any parent asking specific questions. The administrators of our school insist that we do not treat Back-to-School night as a time for conferences, and I willingly oblige.

It was following my very clear final statement and dismissal to the next “Period” that Mr. MeanGuy approached me. He is taller than I and thick like a line-backer – altogether pretty intimidating even before opening his mouth. And then he opened his mouth. He began pointing his finger in my face and accusing me of being unfair to his son. His accusations were not only false but very disrespectful – all in front of many other parents in my classroom. I felt like crawling into a hole and disappearing.

In the interest of being respectful and professional, I answered with the same not-a-conference-night statement I had just made. He didn’t accept right away, continuing to berate me right there in the front of the room. I insisted again that he’d have to schedule a conference and he finally left.

I can’t stop replaying the whole scene over and over again, trying to rewrite my part. What would the bad-ass me have said? How might I have laid into him with the searing words of the strongest females on the big and small screens? I’ll never know.

Life isn’t a movie. Things happen and we either work to overcome them or we don’t. Sure, it would be great to be able to write it all out, plan it to the tee and cook up some awesome one-liners in the process. But that would mean we’d know the ending – and what’s the fun in that?

Coming Out

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Just days after my roommate, Jamie, and I admitted our feelings to each other, I was on a flight back home for the Summer. It was going to be so tough being away now that we had finally blurted out how we really felt. It was all brand new to me. I was excited and scared and nervous all at the same time. It never occurred to me at that time that I’d have to tell my parents. I was only 19. We don’t think that far into the future at that age – I had all the time in the world. Little did I know, that conversation was only weeks away….

Jamie and I talked everyday. It was a challenge because this was just before cell phones became a must. I bought long-distance calling cards each week at the drug store so I wouldn’t get caught jacking up my parents’ phone bills. When I think back, I remember feeling so stealth. I thought there was no way that anyone in my family could possibly suspect something was going on between me and my college roommate. I mean, she wasn’t even in the same state!

Well, I guess when you’re really in love, it seeps out of you. There’s no way to hide it. And I guess that’s how I knew right away that it was real and that it wasn’t a college phase. My Mom calls it Twitterpated – like from Bambi. When two creatures are so in love, they can only see each other, and they don’t care about the rest of the world. Last night Jamie and I were looking through some boxes of old photos of us. I found a stack of letters we’d written back and forth. Reading the letters made me feel like a kid again. The giddy, love-stained words were so honest…and completely Twitterpated.

In July, my father took my sister and I camping at the same lake we camped every summer of our lives. One morning while we were sitting watching the boats on the lake, he asked to take a walk. We found a picnic bench in the shade and sat down. I was feeling a bit uneasy, but I never could have anticipated what he was going to say. My father simply looked me in the eye and said, “I’d like to talk to you about Jamie.” I nearly died. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I had time. I was supposed to have all the time in the world. I tried to play it off by responding with, “What do you mean?”, but I knew he knew. My father knows me better than anyone else in my family, and I just knew he knew.

I hear horror stories of people coming out to their parents. Some get yelled at. Some get disowned. Some are even attacked. Since I hadn’t even contemplated coming out to my father yet, I hadn’t considered his reaction – but I should have known how it would go. He asked me if I was truly happy. My answer was simple: I absolutely was. And that was it. My father told me he was there to support me in anything I did and he has always kept his promise. From that point on, I didn’t hide my relationship from my family. It was difficult to actually say it sometimes, for fear of even the slightest bit of rejection. But my father proved something to me that day on the picnic bench. He proved that even if the entire world did not accept our relationship, I had family that did. It made me feel like the luckiest girl on Earth.

I do not ever take that gift for granted and I thank my father as often as I can for being such amazing Dad.