Every teacher wants to have positive relationships with their students. Those that don’t are simply in the wrong field. Those teachers that make a real impact are those who are entrenched in the community they serve. They are at the school sports games, communicate with parents regularly, supervise extracurricular activities, and do so much beyond their job description.
The teachers we remember the most in our school days are often those that took a personal interest in us. They are the ones who pushed us because they believed in us. They are the ones who told us we could do more than we thought possible.
But what happens when the students want to get to know the teacher more? They spend hours and hours with the same person all year. It’s only natural that they would want to know their teachers’ interests, hobbies, and passions.
Enter me, in 2013. Señor Rico. High school Spanish teacher in South Central LA, an area protrayed in media as an incubator of drugs and violence. (Have you played Grand Theft Auto V yet?) Maybe not the best place to come out to students.
Teachers around my age were getting engaged and married left and right and female teachers took maternity leave at such a fast rate it made pregnancy seem contagious. Naturally, as this was happening, students began to wonder what was up with Señor Rico.
“Where’s Rica?” became the question of the day at each graduation, dinner, prom, school dance, or any formal event. At each outing, I got to meet all my colleagues’ significant others and spouses. It became strikingly clear I was one of the only single teachers in school. Students drew their own conclusions.
It wasn’t until I’d been a teacher at my school for five years that I decided to come out to my students. It wasn’t an easy decision. I don’t think it ever is, no matter the context. I knew that once I said I was gay, there would be no way to take it back.
I’d like to say that I didn’t care what students thought about me. But, I can’t help but care after spending so much time with them. Would their opinion of me change? I had great relationships with my students. It was the thing I enjoyed the most about the job. I didn’t want to lose that.
Nonetheless, I had to be honest with myself. I felt like I had been lying to students all these years, saying it just wasn’t time for me to get married or that I’d just hadn’t found the right “lady.” I changed excuses as often as I changed ties.
I drew inspiration from Harvey Milk’s philosophy behind coming out. He says, “Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all. And once you do, you will feel so much better.” I had to insert his direct quote because, honestly, I couldn’t have stated it any better.
My students needed to know having a gay teacher was something normal. I was still the same teacher they knew and loved. I just happened to date men instead of women and that had nothing to do with my work. I also wanted to encourage gay students to come out and be comfortable with themselves.
So, one day in late January, I decided to make the announcement to my classes. At the end of the lesson, I asked for everyone’s attention and let them know I had something personal to share. I swear I’d never had such a captive audience all year. I wanted to shout “Oh, now you listen.” Maybe I should invent some “personal announcement” every day.
I prefaced the statement by saying how mature I believed all my students to be and how much I trusted them. And after a pause, I told them I was gay. A few minutes remained before the end of class. I’m not sure what I expected to happen but it certainly wasn’t the round of applause I got. I was grateful for such wonderful students and wanted to hug them all as they exited the class. By the way, I said everything in Spanish, which made the moment even more awesome.
By the last period of the day, the news had lost its luster. The whole school knew by then. Lunch time was like a press conference in high school. The announcement went viral. The only thing that was missing were students running through the hallways shouting “Extra, extra” with folded newspapers in their hands.
One of the most meaningful moments was when one female senior came to my classroom after school. She wanted to tell me she was proud of me for having the courage to divulge my secret. I thanked her but couldn’t help but notice the irony of the situation. I was the teacher here. Wasn’t I supposed to be the one that was proud of her…for her good grades or something?
If I were a teacher 20 years ago, I don’t think I would have been able to have had this kind of moment. I’d also be pushing 50 by now, but that’s beside the point.
High school is a raw indicator of American society. If outrageous homophobia, racism, fat-shaming, and all the other forms of discrimination exist in here, chances are high they do outside as well. But, things aren’t like they used to be. We still have a long way to go but let my anecdote be a little encouragement that American is a little more accepting of difference.
Now conversations about my class go something like this:
Inquisitive student: Is it true that Señor Rico is gay?
Sassy student: Yeah, and you’d best believe you’ll be learning some serious español in his class. And it’s fun, too.
I can live with that.