Gay teacher Rodney Wilson left the classroom, but he's still battling the status quo--one person at a time.
In March of 1994, Mehlville High School history teacher Rodney Wilson found himself at the center of a maelstrom after informing one of his classes that he was gay. During a lesson on the Holocaust, Wilson told students that if he had been alive during World War II, he would have been sent to a concentration camp and forced to wear a pink triangle because of his sexual orientation. Officials of the Mehlville School District in suburban St. Louis claimed the comments were out of line and chastised the 29-yearold Wilson in a two paragraph memorandum. "The Mehlville School District," they wrote, "considers it inappropriate conduct for a teacher to discuss facts and beliefs of a personal nature, regardless of the nature of those beliefs, in the classroom."
An untenured fourth-year teacher, Wilson fought back, demanding that the district remove the memorandum from his personnel file. The memo, he said at the time, "belongs in the dustbin of history. We young people just aren't going to hide anymore. We must live above ground, not in parks and dark places."
Wilson eventually prevailed. He won tenure and, he believes, the respect of students and colleagues alike. "After a few months," he says, "things died down, and I pretty much became like any other teacher, concentrating on my classes and going about my own business."
But two years ago, at the age of 32, Wilson left his job at Mehlville High and moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, where he is now teaching a GED class at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and contemplating what to do with the rest of his life. He insists that his departure from high school teaching had nothing to do with being gay or the tumultuous events of the 1993-94 school year. Instead, he cites Henry David Thoreau, who upon leaving Walden Pond wrote, "This is all the available time I have for this endeavor."
"Teaching well is an exhausting, all-consuming way of life, and I felt that I had given all I had to give after seven years," he says. "I didn't want to become one of those burned-out veteran teachers who goes through the motions for a paycheck."
After his much-publicized battle with the Mehlville district, Wilson became a national advocate for gay and lesbian rights. He was a principal organizer of Gay and Lesbian History Month, which is now recognized by many school systems across the country. Although Wilson thinks his efforts have made a real difference--he believes things are much better now than they once were for gay teachers and students--he says he grew weary of his activist role. A religious person, Wilson decided to turn inward, hoping, as he puts it, "to reignite my spiritual energy."
"I came to believe that everlasting change-and the peace and justice it creates--can only happen within, one person at a time," Wilson explains. "So I left the world and returned to my spiritual work by focusing on reconstructing my neglected spiritual life."
Vol. 11, Issue 01, Page 74Published in Print: August 11, 1999, as Turning Inward