The start of school is a big transition time in our household. My husband and I are both public high school teachers, and as of this year, both kids are in elementary school. By August every year, we have the summer routine down and can really enjoy the time off. Then September starts to rear its head, and each of us starts displaying anxiety in our own ways until finally the start of the school year is here and we each head out the door armed with backpacks and lunch bags.
Yesterday was the start of my seventh year at my current school, twelfth year of teaching overall, and I still pessimistically expect the kids to be unenthusiastic lumps who don’t even crack a smile at my hilarious jokes. Of course, this is just the opposite of what happens. Adolescents are usually pretty eager to return to the routine that the school day offers, and at this point they haven’t been burdened by the unending mountain of homework that will build up in the next day or two. Most of the kids sat with warm smiles, laughed at my jokes, and said “thank you” when they left class. Some of that is due to the blessing of teaching in this affluent suburban town where kids are taught manners (if maybe not some of the more important lessons of life), and I’m starting to believe that some of it is a credit to my reputation and demeanor as a teacher here. (Yes, I’m a bit like Stuart Smalley in that regard.)
This year, I was even more nervous about introducing myself. We dropped off the petitions for a change of name with the county courthouse earlier this week, and even though my last name won’t be officially changed to my husband’s for another month or two, I felt it necessary to tell the kids that this was coming. I had grilled female colleagues who had made the transition from one name to the next upon marriage, and I came to the decision that I would let them know I was changing my name and that they were welcome to continue using my original name if using the new one would be too traumatizing for them. Still, I couldn’t just offhandedly mention that I was changing my name without giving a reason, and since I got married more than nine years ago, I couldn’t just give my student some genderless explanation. In each class, I puffed up my chest and offered this:
“Welcome to class everyone! You’ll see I’ve written a different name on the board than you have on your schedules, and that’s because my two children and I are taking my husband’s last name…”
I blathered on for a little bit longer hoping that might dilute the “my husband” part of what I was saying, and then I quickly shifted gears to our first day activity. I’m not quite sure why I still get nervous about this. I think it has to do with the exhausting anticipation of “coming out” over and over again. I like to think of it as a type of PRE-traumatic stress disorder, and I’m pretty sure this is something that most gay people can attest to. (I honestly didn’t know Pre-TSD was a real thing until I just Googled it.)
Prior to coming out, I was sure that no one knew. I was also sure that even though most of my friends and family had gay friends that they really liked, I was the one person that they would not like being gay. There was very little evidence to suggest that this was the case, but when you grow up in a hetero-normative world, where people tell young men they’re going to be “lady killers” and all the romantic word problems in math deal with opposite sex couples, you’re just sure that no one could possibly believe that you might be gay.
When I told my parents that I was gay at a restaurant during the summer after my freshman year of college, my mom literally cheered like she was at a football game, screaming, “I knew it!” with a huge smile. I received similar reactions from the other close friends and family in my life, although possibly with a little less flair. Even with all that positive energy around my initial coming out, my heart still skips a beat when a mom on the playground asks where my wife is and I have to politely correct her. I was doing some consulting work a few months ago and found myself in a car full of Texan teachers who asked about my family. I honestly thought they were going to pull over the car, call me a pervert, and order me to walk, but when I said I was married to a man and made a little joke about it–“It is Massachusetts after all!”–they smiled and said that was wonderful.
So when I stood up in front of the class the very first day and announced that I was taking my husband’s name, I think a little voice in my head was saying, “Get ready…there’s going to be a walk out,” which is so insane I know. The moment came, the kids barely reacted, and then we moved on. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I typically mention my family every year when I’m introducing myself, but I still have a little bit of anxiety about it and that usually happens after the first day, definitely not within the first few minutes of class.
After six years, I’m pretty sure most of my students know that I’m one of the “gay teachers” on campus once they see my name on their schedule. In a few months, I’m sure they’ll be mistaking me for the only other brazenly open gay man on campus, a math teacher who is an older tall white man with no kids who speaks about his husband as openly as I do–while this last item is literally the only quality we share, students are constantly calling me by his name in class, much the way I will refer to my son by my daughter’s name and vice versa simply because of their interchangeability in my mind at the moment.
I personally try to make it a point not to assume anything about a student’s identity until they reveal it to me. As part of a questionnaire that my students fill out at the start of the school year, I added racial identity and religious affiliation this year in the hopes that I might be able to front load some of this knowledge and not have to find awkward ways for them to disclose it. Unfortunately, we’re not at a point yet where I can add a question about sexuality, and I follow the advice I always give which is that no matter the suspicions, a person has to be ready to tell you that he or she is not heterosexual before you can talk to them about it. I’m not sure our world will ever get to a point where the assumption of heterosexuality isn’t a given, so I don’t anticipate my self-diagnosed pre-traumatic stress disorder to dissipate any time soon. Until then I’ll just deal with my anxiety like everyone else does, by drinking cocktails and being kind of nasty to people until the moment passes.