Laurie Townshend Headshot

How I Came Out to My Class of 12-Year-Olds

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Out of a class of 25, seven and a half hands shot up while everyone else stared at me with wide, earnest eyes suggesting a Benjamin-Button-like reversal of the puberty process. It was near the end of the period and I had an unusual problem for a middle school teacher. A first, in a 16-year career in public education: a class full of engaged 12 and 13-year-olds oblivious to the beckoning dismissal bell because they had just put all the clues together and learned that their teacher is gay.

The usual suspects spoke out of course and had to be asked to wait their turn. The class clown was in perfect form with his follow-up to the marriage question, "If you ever do get married, can I be your flower girl?" The remaining questions contained that perfect mix of childlike spontaneity held down by carefully thought out words. No sentence fragments. Not one "like" or "um". Just coherent interrogative phrases spoken with the sole purpose of understanding, satisfying curiosity, and as I learned, confirming suspicions.

Early Clues

I had always tried to imagine how this day would go. Since beginning my teaching career in the late 90's and honing in on my sexual truth around the same time, I had fretfully envisioned that uncovering of my sexuality would result in bathroom stall etchings, schoolyard gossip and (more recently) mean spirited Tweets. Yes, it's true, no matter how seasoned a teacher you may be, the threat of bullying and isolation is real. I was certain that however it came out, my coming out would relegate me to the back of the line in the minds of my students and their mostly new immigrant and working class families.

It would be fair to characterize my fear of coming out as a silencing, but I wouldn't say that it rendered me immobile or completely ineffective as an educator. I may have taken up residence in the proverbial closet, but from time to time, I could be heard rustling around, rearranging hangers, singing to myself...I am certain that some of my students picked up on my restlessness, even if it was behind closed doors. Due to my transparent politics around sexual freedom and social justice (which came through my teaching assignment of Phys. Ed and Health at the time), several students identified me as a "safe" adult within the school.

As early as my second year of teaching, I had an eighth grade boy confide in me that he was ready "really ready" for a boyfriend. I remember feeling honoured that he would trust me with his secret. I also recall the hot lump that sat just beneath my rib cage as I held back from telling him exactly how much I could identify with his struggle of telling his parents. In the end, he was referred to the guidance counselor. He moved on to high school, and I never heard from him again. But there were others. Several, in fact. Boys for the most part who, if they found themselves suffering through uncertainty, felt they could approach me for a compassionate, nonjudgmental ear. I am strangely proud of those days, for when I look back, I was present for those kids, if not present for myself.

Who Done It?

So who eventually pried that closet door wide open earlier this week?

As far as my students were concerned, it was the plumber.

We were having a discussion about tradespeople and their importance in society. It just so happened that that very morning my household awoke to a leaking pipe originating somewhere behind the walls of our kitchen. On my commute to work, my partner called and assured me that she could work from home to oversee the repair. She even sent me an iPhoto later that morning of the two rectangular holes decorating our kitchen walls. As our classroom conversation about the skilled trades continued, I did what I often do -- I took a page out of real life to illustrate a point. To make the learning real. To ensure that my students were really listening.

Well, were they ever.

Student 1: "So like there's a plumber in your house, right now?"

Me: "Uh...yeah." * downplaying/I can sense where this is going

Student 2: "Does he have a key to your house?" *yup exactly where I thought this was going

Student 1: "You let a stranger in your house?!"

Me: Of course not...so governments want to ensure that there's a balance of workers in all sectors *pretending to not hear the question/simultaneously wishing I hadn't worn such a clingy blouse

Student 1: "Then who's at your house?"

Me: "Umm...."

And that was it. The flurry of wordless surprising glances and knowing smiles eventually gave way to your typical question and answer period. They needed to know the answers to simple and predictable things like my partner's name, how long we've been together, where and how we met, if we want to get married.

"If you get married can I be your flower girl?"

If an out of body experience is one that serves up your life in distorted vignettes, leaving you feeling like a physically removed viewer watching a slow motion montage, then this was the complete opposite of that. Perched at the edge of my desk in front of my humming Smart Board, amidst the frenetic buzz of teenaged curiosity, I lived every high def frame of the discomfort and excitement in real time. Any teacher worth her expertly managed pension fund will tell you that the greatest classroom rush is when your kids get it. When their faces typically contorted in some bizarre combination of confusion and pain, light up with complete unadulterated comprehension. Well, as I sat there surveying the faces of the teens whom I've witnessed in just about every state of miscomprehension, I noticed something new. Rarified. Exhilarating. Collective understanding of something really, really big.

You read about these monumental teachable moments in education publications, but the authors always leave out this part: that to reach the hearts of your students, a teacher must sometimes bear her own. In those heady moments of vulnerable dialogue about my road to self-acceptance. In the precious relieved tone of one student's, "I thought you were alone", I concluded that on this day each of my students would earn an A+. As far as I was concerned they had earned their doctorates in Compassion.

There were other moments during question period when I felt like I was meeting my 25 PhC candidates for the first time. The serious girl who sits in a group of four on my left? There was something different in the way she looked at me. It felt like she was...proud of me? The self-professed Ladies Man, who usually has something sarcastic or self-aggrandizing to say, shook my hand as I thanked him for asking his question so respectfully. He quipped, "Ms., I'm a respectful guy." Perfect. Then he smiled what he'd call his "swaggerific" smile and strutted away.

When the last of my students finally exited the classroom, I looked around in silence at the relics of adolescent learning splayed across the walls. Descriptive paragraphs dreaming of what it might be like to one day contain purely relevant details. Mathematical word problems still yearning for their algebraic solutions. My mind flashed on a looming deadline for report card completion. I winched knowing that a report card, designed as a snapshot in time of my students' progress, would fall shamefully short in capturing the magic that took place in class today. For my new graduates of the School of Life, there would be no room on their reports for the only comment that should matter:

"This term, [your child's name] shifted the Universe ever so slightly toward a greater understanding of human compassion by exhibiting, empathy, understanding and acceptance for another human being who happens to be his/her teacher."

Who was I kidding? No reports would be written this evening. Instead I wanted to linger in the euphoria of this milestone of my career. I wanted to go home and announce to the people I love that, "We became a family today!" in the imaginations -- more importantly, the hearts of my students.

Before closing up shop, I stood at the threshold of my classroom. I thought something hokey like "Today, we slayed dragons!" Tomorrow we would tackle square roots and Pythagoras. Anxiously, I wondered if everything would return to normal? Maybe room 109 would just go back to being a regular grade 8 classroom and feel less like the sacred space of the Bikram yoga studios I frequented in the early 2000's. In the end, I decided to take a page out of my now defunct yoga practice. I flicked off the lights, remembered to trust in Love's presence, and released the breath that was caught somewhere between my speechless mouth and my full heart.

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