The original lesson plan for my 11th grade American literature class was straightforward enough. Following a discussion of the Transcendentalists and utopian societies and after reading excerpts of Emerson's essay "Nature," the students were to break into groups and design their own utopias. Since this was generally a cooperative and diligent class, I wasn't concerned about leaving Friday morning's lesson in the hands of a substitute.
That afternoon, as I read the substitute's note, I felt sick. She reported that most groups did well, but one group of boys could not move past the point of wondering what to do with gays.
I pictured the boys -- boys I adored. They are the type of students who smile when they see you and gesture exuberantly in trying to get your attention. They are thrilled that you're their teacher, and, as I found out, they are anti-gay.
Besides being faced once more with the reality that my idea of a perfect world is a long way off, I found my sense of well-being for myself and those I love threatened. Not by some unknown force, but by young men I wanted to continue to like.
The "gay issue" is not one that I feel safe discussing in a classroom. My emotions run too high. I have a gay brother whom I love dearly. When students make any type of homophobic remarks, my usual response is to squelch the issue by explaining that such comments "aren't allowed." This time I wasn't there to stop the rumblings. This time, I realized, my continuing silence on the issue was unacceptable.
Monday morning, I knew I had to speak up. I feared that I was about to ruin my week, along with the good impression my students had of me, and open myself to hostile reactions from parents (and, soon after, administrators). I decided my brother's dignity was worth the risk of making a few waves. I greeted the class: "How was your weekend? Before we go any further with today's lesson, we need to deal with something that has been troubling me all weekend."
I told them I wasn't sure what to do about the matter. Then I turned to the board and began to write names: Jeff, Eric, Jerry, Cathy, Larry, Huck, Jeff ...
"You already wrote 'Jeff,'" someone called out.
"There are two Jeffs," I said.
After writing about 20 names, I began to put stars by some of them.
"The ones with stars must be special," a student said. I nodded.
By this time, the class was silent, intent on my intentions. When my list was complete and I was ready to face the students, I turned around. "The names on the board are people I know and love. They are friends of mine, and they are gay.
"The stars are for ones who have AIDS or who have already died. One of them is my brother. One star is next to a person who cut my hair for eight years. He won't be cutting my hair any more because last summer someone who did not like gay people killed him. My friend would never have hurt anybody. He was one of the nicest, most gentle people you could ever know. More hate crimes are committed against gay people in this country than against any other group except African Americans.
"In my mind, a utopian society is one where everyone belongs. I don't care if you think it's wrong for someone to be gay. Or if you don't like gay people. I can promise you that someone in this class may be gay or have a gay relative or a gay friend. If you say that homosexuals should be excluded from society, or call someone a 'fag,' you will hurt someone. You will hurt me. No one has the right to hurt another human being. None of these people whose names are on the board would hurt anyone. That's all I want to say about it. There will be no discussion."
Everyone was listening. No one said a word. This was not the time for me to debate gay issues or to hear student viewpoints. I already knew some of them anyway. I wasn't interested in hearing if their opinions had changed. All I wanted was to get the sick feeling out of my soul and to let these students know that sometimes what is said in class does touch on the personal and sometimes the teacher does need to speak from the heart.
Emerson speaks of an ideal society where individuals respond to the world around them without egotism. I have discovered in teaching that egotism can serve a larger purpose. Sometimes, by offering the guidance of our unique personal perspectives, we can help students expand their own visions of Utopia.