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.

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.

Inspired, Scared, Courageous, Scared

While absent-mindedly trolling the Internet just moments ago, I found the most amazing article about a Middle School History teacher coming out to her students. As I read the story, I felt like I was reading about my own life as it happened in an alternate reality. In that reality, I was brave. I came out to my students from the get-go. And I stood up to those that tried to knock me down. But it wasn’t me. This was someone else’s story – a story that I have for so long wanted to make my own.

The teacher’s name is Jody Sokolower. To me, she’s a hero. Reading her words, I started to feel so ready to do what she did. I began to imagine her story playing out in my own school, with my students and administrators. And then, just as quickly as I felt ready, fear crept in. That is where I am stuck. For every part of me that feels inspired and ready and brave, fear looms like a dark cloud ready to squash it. Each time I imagine all of the students that are just waiting for a Gay or Lesbian role model, fear reminds me of the parents, administrators and other students that could be ready to pounce. How did she do it? How did she get so brave?

In her story, Jody talks about how it started with the question, “Are you married?” I can’t even count the number of times I have gotten this question from my students. And instead of holding my head up to the world with the truth, I brush past it with a simple, “Nope.” Over and over again, I have had the opportunity to come out to my students, but I always find a way around it.

Last year during the Presidential Election, my Honors classes worked the entire month of October on a project in which they researched the many Presidential candidates and studied their specific beliefs and policy platforms. One of their assignments was to come in ready for a Socratic Seminar, during which the students would be discussing some of the “hot-button” topics of the 2012 campaign, including Same-Sex Marriage. For this type of lesson, the desks are set up in two circles – an inner circle for discussion and an outer circle for observation. The entire seminar is driven by the students – I simply watch and take notes. It wasn’t long before the discussion settled onto Gay Marriage. I held my breath, curious to hear the opinions of my students. And as each student contributed their personal beliefs, I was shocked. Even though a few students had some religious reservations on the topic, most of the class was in agreement that Same-Sex Marriage should be legalized. I felt myself getting choked up as I watched. One student said that he didn’t even understand why the government should get involved in people’s personal lives, and that soon this topic was going to be as ridiculous as slavery once had been.

I can see the opinion on homosexuality of the American Youth changing before my eyes, but I still cannot shake the fears. Unfortunately, I can no longer tell if these are genuine fears I have, or simply excuses to avoid the issue. Is the backlash I am anticipating real? Will there really be an angry mob ready to mobilize? Or is it just something I am creating as a why of putting it off?

I know this: Jody Sokolower’s story has made me feel inspired and scared. I know, too, that I cannot continue to keep my life bottled up. This needs to happen. And the sooner I make that clear to myself, the sooner I can get to work on clearing that dark cloud, and moving on.

My Teaching Story

I grew up in a big city as a Military kid. Even though I was fortunate enough to stay in the same city throughout my education, my parents moved us around quite a bit as they got their own lives together. By the time I stepped onto my High School Campus as a Freshman I had already been to 5 different schools. Since I always seemed to be the new girl, focusing on my actual school work seemed like background noise. It’s not like I was a bad kid, but definitely not what one might call studious. I was so intent on finding “the thing” that would make me fit in, that I didn’t see the point of putting my energy into class.

That all changed my Freshman year in my History class. I never considered History my favorite subject – I honestly don’t know if I even had one – but the way our teacher captivated us each day made me want to know more. He was enthusiastic and passionate and it all came out in his lessons. Initially, I just liked the class as a time slot in the day. I’d look forward to it each day because I couldn’t wait to hear new exciting stories from the exotic History Guy, Mr. Brockett.

Soon, however, I started to realize that I was getting into the subject, too. Mr. Brockett inspired us to discover our own favorites in History by giving us fun incentives for outside of class. I became so into U.S. History that my free time was spent reading war memoirs from General Patton, looking up first-hand accounts of the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, and even annotating Hitler’s creepy manifesto Mein Kampf. I found something within myself because Mr. Brockett was willing to show us an exciting side of a subject we all thought we’d heard before.

One day in class, it just clicked. I looked up at Mr. Brockett, and wanted to be him. I wanted to do what he did. Since that moment, I have put my whole heart into teaching. I worked one period each day as Mr. Brockett’s Teacher’s Assistant for the next 3 years. He taught me some of the behind-the-scene-secrets to teaching and even let me prepare small pieces of lessons that were especially exciting to me. In college, he continued to mentor me. I called as often as I could to discuss strategies I was learning. I absolutely could not wait to step into my own classroom one day and put it all into action.

When I got my job, only 2 months after I graduated, my father gave me a starfish necklace. He told me a story that I have never forgotten…

“One day there was a terrible storm along the coast that left thousands of starfish stranded on the sand. A man watched as a little boy walked from starfish to starfish, picking them up and tossing them into the water to save them. The man looked up and down the beach. There were stranded starfish for as far as the eye could see. After a few minutes, the man approached the young boy. He asked, ‘What are you doing? There are way too many starfish that need help. There is no way to save them all, so what does it matter?’ The young boy simply picked up another starfish and tossed it into the water. He looked back up at the man and said, ‘It mattered to that one.'”

I try and live my life with that story as my inspiration. I think of how Mr. Brockett helped me and how I can help my students. Even if I can inspire 10, or 5 or even 1….even if all I can do is get them interested in my lesson for the 42 minutes they have me each day, I can feel like I made an impact.