Teaching, Trust & Truth: My Student’s Coming Out Story

Tired old souls often argue for the world to stay the same. They argue against their better judgement. They argue even though, somewhere hidden behind the rhetoric and rage, they know they are wrong. It’s rarely the exact issue they are arguing over. It is usually a personal battle with a changing world. They are losing the reins. The next generation is moving in and, like alpha males in a pack, they do not want to step aside. They do not go quietly. They demand the world around them stay the same, ignoring the universal truth that the only constant in this life is change. Over and over and over, attempting to halt progress is to be on the wrong side of history. From dumping tea in the harbor to severing ties with the king. From abolishing slavery to giving women the right to vote. From interracial marriages to, most recently, gay marriage. To clamor for the world to cease spinning is a feat no one can or should accomplish.

Be advised that if you are still alive, then today is your day. You are part of today. True, your role may have shifted, but if you woke up this morning then this is your day.

The older I get, the more I see it with people my own age. The further time hauls them away from high school and an era when the mullet was worn free of irony, the more frustrated they become. I call this “The Good Old Days Syndrome.” It usually begins with the words, “In my day…” First, be advised that if you are still alive, then today is your day. You are part of today. True, your role may have shifted, but if you woke up this morning then this is your day. Secondly, things were not necessarily better in the seventies or the eighties or the nineties. Life expectancy has increased. A few diseases have been eradicated. Society has become more inclusive. No, when you were eighteen, the world was not better. You were better. You had more energy and you had what seemed like an infinite number of days ahead. The times keep changing. Keep up or be kicked out.

Society does change. If you want to see true change happen, spend some quality time with our kids. This is where changes take root. If the generation waiting in the wings has accepted a change, then change has already begun in earnest and no amount of old-man-ranting can bring it down. I have seen a particular change taking root. It has been gradual, but it is clearly happening down here.

Boys Being Boys?

When I first switched to middle school about a decade ago, it was one of the first things I noticed about the boys. The boys were engaged in a constant conversation about sexuality. It’s probably not what you might first assume. At times, they were busy vehemently denying that they were gay, fighting off even the slightest insinuations from any and all sides. If they weren’t busy doing that, then they were accusing others of being gay, putting as much buffer as possible between themselves and any questions about their own orientation. Thinking back, I can only assume how insufferable this must have been for the gay child. The awful, knotted-stomach-balance of denying these claims when it was your turn, but knowing that to deny too deeply might give someone slightly smarter a reason for suspicion—every time wondering if your secret was somehow out and this fresh accusation was real. Then there was the pain of having to accuse others of being gay as if pinning scarlet letters on other students that suggests they are less. You are less, like me.

Maybe each generation’s greatest contribution is their willingness to cling a little longer to their ideals and allow their true voice to resonate for years to come.

However, change has taken root. I can say that I barely hear that kind of chronic banter anymore. I can’t say that full acceptance is here, but it is now often the misguided bigot that must wear the mask and hide their true self. Change was moved along more so recently by Frankie.

Frankie’s Impact

Frankie had a slight build and a quick wit. Right away one could tell that the quick wit was a necessity, a self-defense mechanism to become instantly likeable so as to dodge the teasing or bullying that might have come his way. It worked. Frankie was immediately likeable. He was one of those kids that was so clever and smart that it broke your heart to see him take such little interest in school. He could break your heart and make you smile all at once.

One day Frankie told me that he wanted to speak to me after school. I tried not to get my hopes up, but I was thinking that Frankie was coming to begin anew. Perhaps he had just experienced an epiphany and was ready to take school more seriously. When Frankie entered the room that afternoon, I could tell right away that he wasn’t there to discuss missing assignments. He looked troubled and kept a nervous eye on the door.

“Mr. Bowen, I have to tell you something.”

“Okay,” I said. His tone suggested that he had done something terribly wrong. I prepared myself to stay calm and try not to judge too quickly. “Okay, Frankie. You can tell me.” He false-started a few times and finally confessed.

“I’m gay,” he said, seeming surprised to hear his own voice. I was flooded with relief. Then I beamed. Frankie noticed my broad smile.

“Why are you smiling?”

“I’m honored you chose to tell me.”

“You’re honored?”

“Yes. To be trusted like that is an honor.” He nodded. We stood there for a moment in silence sort of suspended in Frankie’s relief.

“Why me?” I asked.

“You’re nice. But also, I knew a few months ago that when I was ready, I was going to tell you. You usually don’t yell much, but this one time a while back you got a little crazy. And then later I saw you apologize to that kid. I never seen an adult apologize to a kid, so I figured you must be for real.”

I won’t lie. I beamed some more. To be trusted is a powerful thing.

“If you need to talk…” I start, but Frankie just shook his head.

“No. Not today. Today I just needed to say it out loud to somebody. It took me a few months to do this.”

“Okay, but my door is open. I’m not gay, so I don’t know if I’m the best person to tell you how to navigate from here, but I am a pretty good listener.” Frankie gives me a raised eyebrow.

“Mr. Bowen, with that hair and those shoes, are you sure?” There it was. That quick wit in just the right amount to soften the moment. We laugh. Then he drops the routine for a moment. “It doesn’t make sense that I have to pretend to be something I’m not. I hate it. I hope it changes.” I nod. It’s about all I can do. He manages a smile and leaves.

Maybe they will stay grounded in the notion that today will always be their day. Maybe that is the greatest change.

This conversation would not have happened a decade ago and poor Frankie would be scrambling down these halls accusing people of being gay and striking just enough balance to stay hidden himself. He is the new idealist in this battle. He has found his voice and I hope he does not lose it out in the world. A generation in waiting. Maybe that is the greatest form of change. Maybe each generation’s greatest contribution is their willingness to cling a little longer to their ideals and allow their true voice to resonate for years to come. Maybe this generation with be idealistic just a little longer than my own. Maybe they will stay grounded in the notion that today will always be their day. Maybe that is the greatest change. Perhaps it has just taken root.

For more inspiring classroom stories, please check out Mr. Bowen’s recent best seller, Our Kids: Building Relationships in the Classroom.

Feature image courtesy of Flickr, torbakhopper.

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