I’m a public high school teacher, and I also live in the town where I teach. The best part of that arrangement is that I have an endless supply of babysitters. My only rule is that I don’t employ students who are currently in my classes. Tonight, I called one of my superstar sophomores from last year and asked if she could babysit the kids next week. This superstar is an adoptee herself; her mother adopted her from China. The girl gladly accepted the job and then said her mother wanted to speak with me. “Thank you for doing this,” she said. “We’re a mixed family just like yours, and it means a lot that you’re asking her to do this.”
I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had a reaction like that in the six years that I’ve been living and working in this affluent WHITE suburban New England town. Rarely do people go out of their way to say that the way I openly live my life is an asset to this community, particularly as it pertains to the education of its children. The only other time I can remember it coming up explicitly is when I ran into the mother of a young man who had had a turbulent academic experience in my class over the course of two years. He had recently graduated, and she thanked me for all I had done when I ran into her in the supermarket. I admitted that he was a difficult student to motivate, and she told me, “Oh, well that too. You did what all his teachers did to try to get him to do his work, but I meant just being open with the kids about who you are. You really changed his thinking, and I’m so glad for that.”
Now, just to be clear, I am no more or less “open” with my students than my heterosexual colleagues are. By being honest with my students, I mean I often open Monday’s classes by talking about the movie I saw “with my husband and our two kids” the preceding weekend. I don’t use non-gender specific pronouns and I don’t say “partner” instead of “husband.” I talk about my family as though it were the norm. None of this is easy, although I do strive to make it look so; I do this for the young gay kids in the room who need to see that someone can be gay and live as healthy and vibrant a life as their heterosexual counterparts AND I do this for the young heterosexual kids who need to see that someone can be gay and live as healthy and vibrant a life as their heterosexual counterparts. Very rarely however do parents acknowledge the value of conveying myself in this way for their children.
Most often, I’m left to wonder where the families of my students fall on the scale of appreciation in regards to how open I am about my life with my students. And I’m not just talking about the absence of feedback. I get more than my fair share of negative feedback from parents, parents who complain about something or other that they heard happened in my classroom or some policy that I have about grading, and most of the time I’m confused about how much flack I get for elements of my teaching that are almost identical to my white colleagues’ professional practices. I also usually have a student or two every year who has problems with my “style,” usually an adolescent boy overly invested in his sense of machismo and occasionally an African American teenager (the struggles between blacks and gays is well documented).
A great film came out recently that helped me understand what was happening. Shakti Butler’s Cracking the Codes explores the systems of racial inequality in our society, and there is a clip of a female Indian teacher explaining how the graphic at left plays out in her profession. She discusses how her (mostly white) students and colleagues feel they have the right to question her authority on the subject matter. While this probably happens unconsciously, it results in her running around trying to prove that she’s as good as her white colleagues, exhausting herself in the process and doing far more work to achieve the same results. After a while, these implicit criticisms erode her sense of professional worth to the point where she begins questioning her own abilities. When I heard all of this the first time I viewed the film, I realized that this is precisely what is going on in my community.
However, I think something a little more sinister is at play because in addition to having my darker skin and vaguely differently shaped eyes, I am a gay man living next door to these WASPs, flaunting the normalcy of our white picket fence. This is Massachusetts after all, champion of marriage equality; this is New England, cradle of liberal thought. People here know that they aren’t allowed to use racial epithets and go on homophobic tirades–at least not in public. And they certainly can’t complain about a teacher being “too gay.” I had a woman complain to me and a friend in the park the other day about how ridiculous it is that a friend’s son was disciplined for calling another kid gay on the playing field, and then she went on to talk about how upsetting it is to her that black kids are allowed to call white kids “crackers,” but the minute a white kid uses the N-word, they get the book thrown at them. I’m not sure she would have gone on these tirades if she knew exactly who was listening, but she couldn’t tell from looking at me that I was a gay man with two children of color. I’ve had a colleague tell me that she couldn’t recruit more African American kids into her African Literature seminar because “I’m expecting them to read a book a week.” These are the ways that race is still at play in our world: subtle, often even unconscious, thoughts that manipulate our interactions and our choices.
A good friend of mine moved to St. Louis from New England more than ten years ago. Now that she is immersed in the Midwest culture, she’s said on more than one occasion that while she pines for Boston and all that New England has to offer, she does feel that race is a much clearer issue in Missouri. For better or for worse, people there are open about their racism. You know what people feel because they live in a place where it’s still okay to say what you think, no matter how racist and offensive. (For example, I met a college professor from the South a few years ago who described the novel Deliverance as “the one about the two queers in the forest.”) I’m not sure that’s an environment I necessarily want my children to grow up in, particularly at their current young ages, but I can see the value in that as an adult. I know it’s progress that these sentiments remain under wraps, I’m just not sure how we get to the next stage.