The note slipped silently from my hand to a prominent spot on his desk. There it lay, conspicuous in its smallness, a strategically placed sheet of yellow elementary-ruled note paper carefully folded once, then again, and once more to provide that degree of secrecy so important to a 4th grader. I was running away from home, and I wanted someone to know. I wanted someone to care.
In my best cursive, I informed Mr. McHenry of both my plan and my sense of alienation. At 9 years old, I didn’t know I was gay, but I did know that there didn’t seem to be a place for me, not in my family, not in school, not in a small Indiana town. The sense of separateness, of isolation, I was feeling sparked my visions--visions of being accepted, of finding my true home, of starting over.
These visions had prompted the plan to run away. It was an ill-formed plan, lacking any true focus or design and relying wholly on magic. I wanted something that couldn’t be explained or written down on that sheet of paper. I wanted something that I didn’t know how to articulate, some location that I couldn’t quite imagine. I wanted to be included, to feel that I belonged. I didn’t want to feel different. In running away, I was not headed for any specific destination, but I was in search of a place--my place.
I hoped that Mr. McHenry would somehow understand what I was looking for even if I couldn’t define it. From the first day of summer school, I had enjoyed reading class, not because it was interesting or fun or because I even liked reading. In fact, the class was a remedial one, filled with students, like myself, who were standouts for our lack of involvement with books. Still, I felt a certain connection with this, my first male teacher, a connection that was more important than the content of any subject. And so, I dutifully read the passages from the reading kit, filled in my work sheets, and recorded my progress to please him.
It was the connection between teacher and student that was most important in motivating my learning that summer. Sometimes as teachers, we forget how important that connection is to our students. In our search for better lessons, teaching techniques, and materials, we can lose sight of the fact that our students want most of all to be recognized for who they are and the special gifts they bring. Students may perform for us out of a sense of duty, respect, fear, or reward, but such performances pale when compared with one that originates from a sense of love, belonging, and acceptance.
Leaving the classroom that summer morning, I walked aimlessly along the streets of unfamiliar neighborhoods, through cornfields, and along the dry creek beds of my rural town. My thoughts teemed with despair, fear, and expectation--despair at my isolation; fear in the possibility that my note had not been found or, worse, that it had been read and rejected or ridiculed; expectation expectation that something might happen, that I might change or be changed.
I returned home that day without a sense of peace or joy, without a sense of belonging, and without even being missed. In a house full of people, no one had noticed my absence. No one asked where I had been or inquired after my health--physical or mental. My isolation had not diminished but increased.
And then the phone rang. “It’s your teacher,” someone said. “This is the third time he’s called.” I picked up the phone with a sense of both apprehension and joy as I wedged myself between my parents’ bed and night stand. I had never had a phone conversation with a teacher before. The experience didn’t feel wholly real, but the emotions did. Today, more than 20 years later, I can’t remember Mr. McHenry’s words, but I can still feel his caring and how important it was that day. He had read my note and was concerned. I could talk to him. He wanted me to be in his class next year. His caring was an insulator against those feelings of isolation. The conversation strengthened my connection with both my teacher and the world. To someone, I was important. I counted. I belonged. That’s something each child needs, but the need is especially great for gay or lesbian children who recognize that they are different--even if they don’t quite know how or why.
It’s taken me many years to recognize what I was looking for that day at 9 years old. It has been an even longer time in coming. It was not a place, as I thought when I set out on that afternoon of randomness. It was not a new start, as I anticipated when, as a high school student, I recklessly careened across the country for a week. It was not the respect of others that I worked so hard to achieve through grades and awards. It was not a person or a thing. What I had been looking for was within myself. That sense of acceptance and belonging has taken me a lifetime of struggle to discover, and it began with a note left on my favorite teacher’s desk.
A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as The Note