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Published in Print: May 1, 2001, as A Private Lesson

A Private Lesson

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When one student "came out," his teacher was the one who learned.

Ricky was a sophomore. We were wrapping up the first unit of the new school year, an investigation into the balance between individual expression and conformity to societal norms. We had read The Scarlet Letter, studied the transcendentalists, and explored the works of other prominent philosophers, both past and present. For the culminating project, pitched as "an opportunity to show off your thinking about the role of the individual in society," each student was charged with the task of composing a personal credo and later reciting it for the rest of the class. In the spirit of meaningful application of learning, the stage was set for the unveiling of 24 unique and provocative personal philosophies.

The same Friday evening the credo project was assigned, I received the following e-mail from Ricky:

I can't do this! I just wrote my credo. It's something I believe strongly in, but there's no way in hell I can present it. . . . I was having one of my usually odd lunch discussions with my friends last year, and we talked about the concept of the growing size of the gay community. I had an epiphany, and that's what I wrote about. It's so against what anyone else will think, though. Anyone who is slightly homophobic will hate me. It's really the only thing I could think of that I am on firm ground about, though. Oh well, in the words of my friend Laura, "Life can bite me, and it does on numerous occasions." I suppose that's how things are, and I can't change that without changing myself, which is out of the question. Adiablo.

Because I was baffled by the gravity of Ricky's words (and, given his habitual tendency toward procrastination, a bit skeptical of his motives), my immediate instinct was to write back in defense of the assignment. Before composing a response, however, I momentarily stopped to question my motives. Was this assignment accessible—personally, socially, and academically—to all students? Why was I reacting so strongly to Ricky's sentiments? Could it be that I considered his e-mail a criticism of what I'd considered a carefully crafted assignment? What was Ricky really trying to tell me?

At that instant, intuition took over. I removed my teacher's hat and tried to get inside the mind of a 15-year-old anxiously typing away somewhere in cyberspace. Ricky wasn't just any sophomore, however. He had been in my class for four years since arriving at our charter school, where I'd chosen to "move up" with the first class of students, teaching them from 7th through 12th grades. Thinking back on our shared history, an array of images came to mind. Ricky was the one who, literally, had dumped a bucket of water over my head on the last day of the previous school year. I recalled the various iterations of my name that had appeared over time as characters in his creative writing projects. While our relationship had always been one of playfulness and mutual respect, it was clear that this was a serious situation.

On Saturday morning, after a night of restless sleep and anxious anticipation, I awoke and immediately wrote back to Ricky:

First I want to thank you for your e-mail last night and let you know that I'm really glad you sent it. Although I'm not entirely sure, I have a hunch that you might be wanting to tell me something. In fact, my older brother just came out to me a few months ago, and I've been thinking a lot lately about the many complex, confusing, and unfair issues surrounding sexuality in our society. If you feel up to it, I'd love to talk with you about some of these issues. Please do not be offended if I misread your note; I am simply responding in a way that feels right to me. I'm curious to hear what's on your mind.

What was Ricky really trying to tell me?

Ricky's next e-mail graciously confirmed my hunch. Although he was shocked by my "preceptiveness," he also expressed relief that I knew. Because I wouldn't see him until Monday, I felt the need to respond once more online:

You are a brave soul, Ricky, and I cannot begin to tell you how much I respect you for your maturity in dealing with the reality of being gay. Above all, I'd like to offer you my ear; that is to say, if you feel the need to talk to an "adult" (yeah, yeah, that's me, at the ripe old age of 25), and more specifically, an adult at school, then I'm happy to be that person.

It sounds like you are doing quite well already and that you have a strong core of supportive friends/confidants. The value of these relationships is immeasurable (as I'm sure you already know), as all human beings have the need to share their experiences, concerns, frustrations, and joys with others. This need has nothing to do with being black or white, rich or poor, male or female, gay or straight. . . . It's a human need, and you're a pretty darn incredible human being at that. Our society, however, chooses favorites and often attempts to silence certain constituencies or force them not to share their stories. This is an unfortunate reality, but a reality nonetheless.

So, what this all boils down to is this-if you need me for whatever reason, then I am happy to help. The key here is honest communication, and you've already taken a huge step in being honest with yourself and with me. For this, I applaud you.

So there it was, my first "coming out" experience as a teacher. Among other things, I learned the importance of patience and perspective. By resisting my initial impulse and genuinely listening to what Ricky had to say, I essentially opened a door for him to tell his story. I quickly realized that no matter how deliberate and well-intentioned my lesson plan was, I never could have scripted this situation. A few days later, Ricky feigned his way through a trite credo presentation for his peers, yet both of us knew that the real learning had taken place behind the scenes.

By resisting my initial impulse and genuinely listening to what Ricky had to say, I essentially opened a door for him to tell his story.

Nearly three years and dozens of e-mails later, Ricky and I are closer than ever. He is now "out" both at school and to his family, and although the road has been bumpy at times, Ricky continues to live out his real credo, far surpassing the expectations of even the most innovative of assignments. Not only is he able to express and celebrate his individuality, but he also has raised the collective consciousness of the society at our school through his leadership, bravery, and honesty.

Although Ricky deserves all the credit for his remarkable self-actualization, I feel good that I played some part in the process.

Jed Frank Lippard is a founding teacher at the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens, Massachusetts. In the summer of 2000, he served as a mentor teacher for the Teacher Education Program at Brown University.

Vol. 12, Issue 8, Pages 52-54

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