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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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.

* *

A Letter to Chris Christie: “The Governor”

Dear [Governor] Chris Christie,

I know that writing a letter like this can be a bit childish and can even come across as cowardly as I hide behind my keyboard. But right now, I have a few things to get off of my chest, and since the voicemails I have left you in Trenton have gone unanswered, to this humble blog I turn.

I am one of your hard-working New Jersey residents and even though I have only lived here for 11 years, I am confident that I have done New Jersey proud. I went to school here, I own a house here and I teach here. Before you roll your eyes, wondering what this “greedy” teacher wants now, I ask that you hear me out (and maybe even take the moment to read My Teaching Story to discover the real reason I became a teacher).

I take my job very seriously. To me, teaching isn’t just a means to an end – I LOVE what I do. I love it when I catch my students showing genuine interest in a piece of History. I love it when a student comes back to visit and shares with me how much I helped her prepare for the next level. I love the feeling I get when I leave school well after 4:30 because I was helping a single kid study for his upcoming Science test. And I love when a parent comes up to say “My son couldn’t stop talking about your class the other day!”

I just LOVE my profession. It’s not an act. I’m not trying to play to your emotions or fill a cliché. It’s a fact. The reason I bring up this fact is because you have repeatedly tagged teachers as greedy, lazy, overpaid, whiny and selfish – to name just a few. You have earned a reputation in this state (and across the country) for “telling it how it is”. Your insensitive and poison-laden words have become expected by the gluttonous reporters that show up to hear you, eager to snag another Christie One-Liner. Are those giddy reactions you see as you slander your citizens really that worth it? Have you ever considered that those so-called “lazy teachers” on which you choose to focus are the exception, not the rule?

I am the rule. Teachers like me are the rule. Everyday, I see my co-workers put their hearts into what they do. We collaborate on how to work with special needs kids. We collaborate on how to improve a certain lesson. We collaborate on the best methods of assessment to reach all kinds of learners. And in between, we feel hurt that our own Governor is out spreading lies to the citizens of the state. According to you, teachers are disposable. At least that’s the way you made it sound when you told teacher Rita Wilson that if she didn’t like her salary, she should quit. Is it really that black and white to you? Are you really arguing that we teach for the money? By my calculations, my gross pay is approximately $1.40 per day for each student I teach. I think those numbers more than speak for themselves.

You put on the Helping Hat, saying that your intention is to improve the school systems and make this a better place for our children. And you don the Cloak of a Champion during rough times to further blind the voters that will soon be stepping into the curtained booth. Perhaps you should worry less about the optics and the P.R. and more about what your state really needs:

1. Honesty. You have repeatedly gone back on your word, unwilling to even acknowledge previous statements made to your public. You refused to comment on this New York Times article, but maybe now you’ll check out what they have to say.

2. Leadership. If you want changes made in schools, sit down with actual teachers to discover where the improvement is needed. Be willing to find real ways to improve the state’s public education system.

3. Accountability. If teacher accountability is what you desire, good teachers will be right there with you fighting for the same thing (and so would I). However, if you aren’t held accountable for your job and promises, how are we to trust you?

On November 5, New Jersey citizens will be voting to either inaugurate a new Governor, or reelect the same one. It is my hope that the citizens of New Jersey have done their homework, read up on the issues, and ignored your altogether insulting P.R. stunts (such as the convenient withdrawal of your attempt at appealing the lower court decision to allow same-sex couples to wed in New Jersey – do not think that went unnoticed). If a mis-informed, perpetually blind public is what you desire, perhaps you’ll win this election. I, however, have more faith in New Jersey. We are Stronger than that.

Sincerely,

That Lesbian Teacher

Just one of your hard-working New Jersey residents.

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 Again and Again

closet_monster

What many outside the LGBT community don’t realize is that “coming out” doesn’t just happen once. It is not set and sealed after only one awkward conversation. And while each “coming out” conversation did get easier for me, it still had a way of making me feel like I was odd – like I had to clarify my life against the norm.

When I graduated from college and got my teaching job, I made the decision to not be forthright with my lifestyle right away. I was in a new state in a new setting. I did not know a single soul at the school and, to be honest, I was scared. I was afraid of what the other teachers might say behind my back. I was afraid that students would find out. And most of all I was afraid that parents would rise up against me, pitchforks in hand, ready to have my head. It wasn’t until my second year at the school, after I had made some good friends, that I came out. I didn’t even think too much about it. One day, the conversation offered up an opening and I took it. What was surprising (or perhaps not at all so) was that my new friends almost seemed bored with the news. Like, “Yeah, so? And I’m straight.” It was great! I didn’t feel odd. I just felt like it was normal. And that was when I started to realize that it is normal.

My sister once said to me, “Why would you ever hide being gay? I don’t understand why anyone would want to hide who they really are.” I explained to her that, while I agreed with her in my head, my heart fought back. Coming out to family can be difficult enough. But being out from the get-go to co-workers and strangers leaves the heart vulnerable. We put ourselves out there for ridicule, criticism and hate every time we step out from behind the closet doors.

That same year that I came out to my co-workers at school, another female teacher in my building brought in pictures of her new baby girl. I was pretty confused at first – I didn’t remember this woman being pregnant. I didn’t work directly with her and rarely saw her throughout the week, but I was sure I would have been aware of a pregnancy. As I flipped through the photos of the beautiful baby in the hospital, one photo made my breath catch. It was a picture of a woman in a hospital bed holding the newborn girl, while my co-worker smiled proudly beside both. She was gay! I was so exhilarated I couldn’t even speak. I learned a valuable lesson that day: Sometimes we step out of the closet waiting for the attack of the Monsters, but we forget to look for the company of a Friend.

“I have been and still am a seeker, but I have ceased to question stars and books; I have begun to listen to the teaching my blood whispers to me.” –Hermann Hesse