Teachin' For America

Thoughts and otherwise on one particular Teach for America experience.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Failure

I really don’t know where to begin with today. So many things went so wrong in so many ways that it has left me a huge, tightly clenched, non-sleeping ball of fury and frustration. This is one of those times so many people who had been through the first year of teaching in an under-privileged school told me about. It’s one of those moments where I can’t imagine making enough of a difference to make my work worth it. One of those moments where I really, truly, and wholeheartedly do not want to go back to school tomorrow. One of those moments that make less dedicated teachers lose it and quit their jobs. One of those moments I always figured would come but never, of course, appreciated their gravity.

The older students at my school, the ones who know about such things, seem to think that I’m gay. A similar thing happened to me in LA this summer. I suffered a minor identity crisis, but have subsequently gotten over it. Overall, it has not left much of a mark on me. However, what is occurring at my school right now has affected me quite deeply. In LA some of my colleagues thought I was gay. They being tolerant people, however, didn’t change their treatment of me in any way because of it. So we cleared up the misunderstanding, had a chuckle, and moved on. But the sixth graders at my school call me gay like it’s a bad thing. And it hurts me on a slightly personal level, but much more so on a much higher level. I can assure them I’m not gay (though I haven’t, thus far had much luck in convincing them). It pains me, though, to imagine how I might feel if I couldn’t. Or at least if I couldn’t do so honestly. What has me upset is not the fact that students think I’m gay. It upsets me that they bring it up as though I should be ashamed of it. It upsets me that they look at me as I tell them that I’m not (I’m not, but it wouldn’t matter if I was, I always say) as if their decision on whether or not to accept my heterosexuality has other ramifications. As if, by telling them that I’m not gay, I’m telling them that it’s okay to respect me, that it’s okay to like me as a person. And I feel so lucky to be able to tell them honestly what they want to hear and feel so awful to think that there are people in similar situations who can’t.
It is my impression that the homophobia in my school- an elementary school- is rampant. By fifth or sixth grade, these kids seem to have internalized the thought that “gay” is a negative word. I can see in their eyes as they look at me and consider my affirmation of my heterosexuality a degree of judgment that should not exist. Let me give an example of the context in which these encounters occur.
I was in Ms. “Teague’s” sixth grade classroom with my five sixth graders who are currently pushing in to a gen. ed. class each morning. I go there to help them with their work, but tend to feel slightly useless and left out. So my eyes surely brightened when “Montel,” one of my brighter and better-behaving students motioned to me to come over to where he was sitting. When I arrived on the other side of the room, however, Montel was not interested in getting help with his work. “Mr. M,” he said, looking up at me with his charming, knowing smile, “he think you gay.” This is a perfect example where a child says something that takes me so off guard I have to pretend I haven’t heard him or her in order to buy enough time to formulate a response.
“What?” I asked, my mind racing and reeling. I was inundated with memories of this summer. I thought desperately of how I would have to react differently in this situation, given these were not tolerant colleagues- they were children who undoubtedly had very different ideas about homosexuality. I was overwhelmed.
“He think you gay. Tell ‘im you ain’t gay,” Montel intoned, looking to me for confirmation of what he had obviously been telling his classmate moments before. I think I managed to unconvincingly mutter that I was not gay. Then I got my wits (slightly) back and realized that that was not enough. I panicked again, knowing that this was an extremely “teachable moment.” I knew that answering to my own sexuality might be good enough to fix my situation. But I knew that I was obligated to do what I could for other people as well. I knew that I had to get the point across to Montel and his classmate that the implication in their speech and actions was wrong. I had to do it for their sake, so that they would not grow up in ignorance, hatred, and intolerance. And I had to do it for the sake of the cause of equality and tolerance, one in which I believe strongly but do not believe I have done enough (if one ever could).
So I got something out about how I was not gay but it would not matter if I was. Montel said something to the effect of “Told you so” to his classmate, proud his teacher was no fag. The other boy looked at me in such a way that I could tell he was not really believing me on either front. If I were a stronger person I would have pursued the issue, attempting to make a real difference. But I’m not, so I failed. I pretended that what I had said was enough and went back to finding ways to help my students with their schoolwork. I failed. I missed a teachable moment and let the kids whose lives I could have touched leave my presence without having grown.
But I can no longer dwell on this failure. I can’t even dwell on the encounter I had in the hall with another of Montez’s classmates, who, upon my now-formulaic response of “I’m not gay but it wouldn’t matter if it was,” reacted to my attempt to make the most of the teachable moment by laughing in my face and running away. Dwelling on that moment makes me bitter toward the child, which I know is wrong. So instead I feel bitter toward myself. It was my failure, not his, that the moment was wasted. I hope the next one won’t be.