On Sunday morning, I was overcome by sadness, anger, and fear upon learning about the violent mass murder at a LGBT night club in Orlando. Sadness for the lives lost and pain inflicted. Anger that this act of violence was committed and that we live in such a violent world. Fear for my loved ones. Fear that our violent culture will respond with more violence. Fear that the hate epitomized by this act will be stronger than our love. In her guest-blog, Julissa Llosa — a teacher and leader at our school as well as an LGBT activist — does what great teachers do: she teaches. Her words touched me and helped me think about how I should respond. Her story of strength in the face of fear serves as a powerful example. Her wisdom in the face of ignorance should inspire us all. JRTM
I went to my high school prom with my girlfriend ten years ago. We were the first queer couple to attend prom together. I was excited.
Yet on the last day of school when my history teacher announced that we were going to watch the prom video in class, I was terrified. This was the same history teacher who announced one day in class that we did not have any gay students in school. I was terrified that the cameras had captured the joy of dancing with my first love. I was terrified that my peers would look at my love and turn it into hate.
When I became a high school teacher, I was also afraid. For the first two of years of my career I did not come out as queer to my students. When there are so many barriers to our students’ academic success in low income communities of color, why add your queer identity to the list?
We have been taught as queer people that our identities are barriers: barriers to happiness, to success, and to heaven. When there is so much hate being taught in society, it is our job to unteach it in our schools. It is our job to lovingly dismantle the fear that has been inculcated in our queer bodies since we were young. It is our duty to fight, to win, to love each other and protect each other.
How do we teach students to be themselves, unafraid and unapologetic? How do we teach students to show their love genuinely when it might put them in danger? We live in a world where expressing your full self and dancing with your queer community can be lethal. But we teach our students to explore all sides of themselves, regardless of how cruel the world can be when they actually embody their desires. We teach them to deeply explore the hate they’ve been taught, the origin of their anger, and the ways to ease their pain.
At the founding of our school, Harvest Collegiate High School, our principal hired a social worker, Atash Yaghmaian, before hiring any teachers. Their vision was to create a school that values students’ social and emotional development as much as it does their academic growth. Our team of social workers diligently strive to foster an environment where counseling is completely destigmatized. As we work to destigmatize counseling, we also destigmatize mental health issues; a practice that is direly needed in a society where isolation and lack of mental health support allows hate and violence to become lethal. We build empathetic communities where our students grow and interrogate the hate they have been taught. We teach them to process phobias, instead of acting on them. To support our community to this extent our principal Kate Burch has hired two fulltime social workers and welcomes in four social work interns every year (our student body is a little over 450). We also have a peercounseling program, where Atash trains a group of incoming freshmen in deescalation strategies, community accountability and empathy. We deeply believe in teaching our students to hold each other accountable for the safety of every member of our community.
We teach our students to question their beliefs in history classes like “NonViolent Resistance,” English classes like “Trauma and Resilience,” and art classes like “Art Therapy.” This is my third year teaching Art Therapy class, where students explore their emotions, trauma and dreams through their artwork. During one of our first group conversations in Art Therapy one student confided with the class that they are exploring and questioning their sexuality. Their voice was shaky and fearful. Immediately, other students chimed in with supportive statements and expressions of similar explorations. There was no need for me to even respond; we had already created a space where students could offer their support to one another without my facilitation. The joy of teaching appears as your role disappears.
As the first graduating class leaves our school, I am proud of the work we have done. I am proud of the many happy and sad Gender, Sexuality, XYZ Club meetings we had. I am proud of the moment the sophomores explained to the freshmen how gender is distinct, but closely tied to sexuality. I am proud of the ways in which our students quote Audre Lorde in their English papers. I am proud when our Art Club bursts into a bachata dance party. I come to tears when I remember the day we changed our students legal given names to their preferred names in our online grading program. I am proud when staff uses the gender pronouns students have announced for themselves in staff meetings. I am proud when our gender nonconforming students can choose to use whatever bathroom in which they feel safest. I am proud even in this time of pain and tragedy. I am proud, even though the fear still persists.
As educators invested in our students and our larger communities, it is our duty to nurture a space for collective transformation. Our role as teachers should be to create a space for our students to voice their fears and phobias, their pain and anger, and their questions and dreams. Even though we cannot protect our students outside our schools’ walls, when students leave, they are powerful. They move through the world, bodies loving and respecting the truths they hold and the truths of others. I hope educators see the paramount value in this and find transformative joy in facing these fears alongside their students. It is worth it; our students are worth it; we are worth it.
Photo 1 Student are work from Julissa’s Art Therapy course.
Photo 2 Collage work from a bulletin board created by Harvest students.
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