Ava, an 8th-grade student in my after-school creative writing class came to me to discuss a story she was working on. She was writing a fictional story about a gay teenager who struggles with his sexuality and coming out. Even early on in the process, I was impressed with her ability to look at this story as a complex study in understanding—giving a voice to, and respectfully exploring, the conflicts of a gay teen.
She approached the writing process with such integrity and sensitivity. We talked through her revisions. Ava even discussed with her family why this story was important.
Ava was so passionate. She wrote during every spare moment, handed in several revisions, had conversations with her close friends and asked for feedback. Writing was always an important part of her identity, but this story helped her to write and discover new things about herself that she didn’t know. Writing this story literally transformed her.
One morning before school, she came into my room with her mom. Ava was sobbing. She told me that another student had found one of her drafts in the recycling bin and was passing it around to other students. It had become fodder for harassment. More students joined in, and they spat so many insults and gay slurs at her, she stood stunned at her locker at the end of the day, unable to respond with her usual witty and bold comebacks. She cried at her locker until they stopped and walked away.
I was crushed for her and for her family who had supported her. “It makes me not want to write at all anymore,” she told me.
We went through our bullying and harassment procedures, which meant Ava submitted a written complaint, administrators conducted an investigation, and parents were called in for a meeting.
I was devastated. My student’s power was taken away when she decided to be brave and share through her writing. Ava’s social justice lesson was personal.
I tried to remind her that she should continue to be proud, that I needed her to continue to write as did her family, her peers and her community. She was trying to convey to all of us through her writing the importance of equality and sensitivity. I told her she was doing an important job.
“Don’t let them take your voice. That’s yours,” I pushed.
Ava is strong. She is now starting high school, and she is writing again. Her bold convictions have returned. Now, I am learning from her. We can all learn from her of the importance of tolerance and the need to continue to push for justice.
Van Etten is a middle school language arts teacher and creative workshop instructor in Iowa.