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October 10, 2015 8:09 pm

Teaching from the Fullness of Ourselves

On National Coming Out Day, we have a guest blog post from retired Portland, Maine, teacher Betsy Parsons on her journey to coming out in the classroom, and the positive impact it had on LGBT students.

If you're a teacher or administrator with questions about how to ensure your school is safe and welcoming for all, or If you're a student in need of help or information about your rights,contact us at GLAD Answers and visit www.glad.org/youth.

In gentle sun and salt breeze, Laurie and I shared cool melon chunks on a perfect Maine afternoon at Portland Head Light, lobster boats churning by, gulls screeching above.  A new college graduate, Laurie had proposed an outdoor lunch and catch-up time with her ninth-grade English teacher.


Betsy in a 2011 photo with members of GLSEN-Southern Maine's student leadership team/GSTA leaders. Photo by Rick Kimball.

Her news included a happy relationship with a female partner.   In sharing my joy for her, I also disclosed, for the first time, my own lesbian partnership.  After all, I thought, Laurie was an adult now.

Her response promptly raised her ninth-grade reality of living with a secret she had guarded in such pain and isolation.  She was lesbian.  No one in the world knew.  She was also brilliant, beautiful, athletic and musical, but could see no future, no career, no family, no hope for her life — just loneliness and fear.  She had the means to end her life, and she seriously considered this possibility daily.

This psychological state could not have been further from the way Laurie presented at school.  As she shared the hidden story of her high school years, I could not stop my tears.

“How could I have helped?  What could I have done that would have made high school more bearable for you?

She kindly listed many ways I had helped.  I didn’t remember specific moments, but the interactions she recalled sounded like me.  I was astonished by the clarity and detail of her memories.

Laurie closed:  “But what else could you have done?  Well, you could have been out.   (pause)   You could have been out to me and to everyone.  That’s what really would have helped.   I respected you.   My parents respected you.  If I had known that you and I were alike in this way, I would have had SO much more hope for my life!”

LGBT colleagues, when we teach from the fullness of ourselves, we give and sustain life.  If you are doing so, thank you for bearing the costs as well as the joys.  If you aren’t there yet and can find a way to teach fully out to students and families, please take the steps to do it.

That sunny afternoon with Laurie was a professional turning point for me, spurred further by deaths and near-deaths of other beloved young LGBT students in the mid-1990s, especially gay boys and young men — these terrible losses resulting in part from unrestrained anti-LGBT hate language and harassment in their schools.

Thence forward, I came out to my students each semester by simply including “I am a lesbian teacher” in my introduction to new classes, and by answering any questions briefly and honestly.  In return, young people gave me primarily their respect and trust.  After all, if I would be honest about my identity and my family when no other LGBT teacher in our district dared, I would probably be honest with them about other matters, as well.  And they were right.

And since we cannot know the complicated equations of each other’s lives, let me also acknowledge the painful challenge of not being able to make this choice to serve fully out at this time.  I thank those LGBT school colleagues who serve in full silence or partial silence; I did that myself for more than a decade, and I am familiar with the fear and isolation of that struggle.  I know you would not accept this difficulty unless you were devoted to students and to our profession.  Thank you for doing your best.

One day, another silent, terrified lesbian ninth grader sat in my English class.  Jan’s post-college visit to me with her partner, soon to be her wife, included laughing about our first day together all those years ago:  “You said the word lesbian, and I didn’t hear another word for the whole 75 minutes of that class!!”

“What did that mean for you?”  I asked.

“I could have my life,” Jan answered, and blithely went on to some other topic.  I didn’t hear another word she said for many minutes.

LGBT colleagues, when we teach from the fullness of ourselves, we give and sustain life.  If you are doing so, thank you for bearing the costs as well as the joys.  If you aren’t there yet and can find a way to teach fully out to students and families, please take the steps to do it.

And since we cannot know the complicated equations of each other’s lives, let me also acknowledge the painful challenge of not being able to make this choice to serve fully out at this time.  I thank those LGBT school colleagues who serve in full silence or partial silence; I did that myself for more than a decade, and I am familiar with the fear and isolation of that struggle.  I know you would not accept this difficulty unless you were devoted to students and to our profession.  Thank you for doing your best.

Today, Laurie is a midlife physician and mom in another state.  Jan and her wife are local teachers in their thirties with five degrees between them.  They are raising a young family, coaching, advising a Gay-Straight-Trans Alliance, and giving to their community in many other ways, including organizing material support for Portland’s asylum seekers.

They are having their lives abundantly… and in their turn sharing love, empowerment and healing with our young.  

This is the gift we can help make possible by teaching out to students and families in the fullness of our identities.  Let’s give ‘em hope.

Betsy Parsons is a retired teacher in the Portland (ME) Public Schools; a human rights activist; an LGBT-and-allied youth advocate; and a Unitarian-Universalist.

Comments

On October 14, 2015 at 4:49 pm, Vickie Henry commented:

Betsy - thank you for sharing this beautiful story. I know you touched so many hearts, including many who did not or could not tell you. Thank you.

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