By the time I entered high school in 1990, I had already endured three long years of severe bullying. My school, just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, was not particularly welcoming to adolescent boys of my persuasion. My naturally flamboyant nature attracted a swarm of hornets whose daily stinging left indelible scars. But the day it all became too much to handle was the day I realized how alone I really was.
I walked from first period English to second period Science class and stopped in the doorway of the science lab to say hello to my friend Gindy. In mid-conversation I felt a hand clutch my shoulder from behind and whip me around. One of my tormentors, a boy named Matt, picked me up by my shirt, punched me in the stomach and threw me across a lab table. I glided along the slate table-top like a bowling ball and landed on the concrete floor. Then Matt lunged at me to take a few more shots. My science teacher, Mr. Johnson, walked in as I was airborne. A crowd had gathered to cheer Matt on, yelling, “Yeah, kick that faggot’s ass.”
I looked up desperately toward my teacher, but to no avail: “Okay, come on now boys, cut it out.”
Matt ran off and the crowd of spectators disbanded, leaving me wincing on the floor. Mr. Johnson picked up his chalk and faced the blackboard.
I collected my books, walked out of Burlington High, and never went back. I transferred to another school the following semester. Mr. Johnson was not the first teacher to turn a blind eye to this kind of behavior. In fact he was the last in a string of teachers who showed more annoyance than concern in the face of such hazing. Most teachers tossed off a casual rebuke and went on with their lesson as if the abuse was no more than a mere disturbance. But I wanted them to see what was really going on and stick up for me. I required their protection.
Like me, many teens feel isolated and alone when coming to terms with their sexuality and often can’t tell their parents for one reason or another. But this unfortunate reality places our teachers in an even more vital role in our children’s lives. Today I am the Co-Chair for GLSEN-NYC (The Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network, www.glsen.org) and teach anti-bullying workshops to students from all walks of life. Although the recent explosion of “gay” in mainstream America, via television characters, marriage equality and the anti-bullying movement, has launched a revolution, our schools still have a long way to go.
I recently taught a workshop at a high school on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. When I arrived and the coordinator escorted me down the chaotic hallway, memories of that day in Mr. Johnson’s science lab flashed in my head. We reached an unruly classroom pinging with the shrieks of teenage intensity. As I waited there for the teacher to arrive, not one of these students so much as acknowledged my presence. It was a mixed class of gay, lesbian, and straight students. The strength of the dominant kids, both gay and straight, was overpowering as they called each other slurs like- “slut”, “fag” and other derogatory terms. Some flung these words out in sarcastic jest at their friends, but others hurled them across the room like stones from a slingshot meant to harm. I noticed a few students hiding in the corners of the room avoiding eye contact with anyone. When they did look up I saw that all-too-familiar look of fear in their eyes, pleading for help but too petrified to speak up.
I wasn’t all that shocked – I’ve seen it before while teaching many workshops in all kinds of schools. But finally someone stood up and said, “All right, let’s pay attention to this guy from GLSEN.” It turned out she was the teacher. That did shock me. She had been carrying on and laughing like one of her students. The rest of the workshop was a battle for control between me and the class. I can usually get them to pay attention and participate for some length of time, but I struggled for the entire hour to start an honest dialogue about their behavior. Every time I thought I was getting somewhere they erupted into laughter or acted out, with their teacher, their leader, laughing along with them.
I left that day with the stark realization that my work with students is irrelevant if teachers are not on board. Now, not every teacher or every school is like the one I just described. Still, I have seen varying degrees of this behavior in most classrooms I’ve visited. Most often, I continue to observe the type of silent neglect that Mr. Johnson exhibited toward me close to twenty-five years ago. Teachers who allow words to fly across the room like emotional bombs with enough power to destroy self-esteem send the message that it’s acceptable for students to treat their peers in this manner.
I believe that teaching is the most respectable and most honorable profession. There are remarkable teachers out there who change children’s lives for the better and help build an unshakable foundation in their students that live on in society as they grow and enter the world. But while each student deserves such an experience, that’s not what every student receives. Is it unrealistic to expect better? Is the education system itself irreparably broken? I don’t think it is. What teachers need, rather, is more support.
The point of teaching is to impart knowledge. But is the term “knowledge” limited to calculus, chemistry and English Literature? Most teachers worth their salt will say that it’s not. They recognize that emotional development in young adults is just as important, if not more so, as mental development. Indeed, the teaching of facts has to be coupled with the nurturing of wisdom. How many more school shootings carried out by students or former students who felt ostracized, bullied, or unaccepted do we have to see? If changing this behavior means saving lives then we need to educate our educators with tools and systems that support a respectable and bully-free learning environment.
I have the great pleasure of sharing my GLSEN –NYC duties with fellow Co-Chair, and educator, Jonah Frank of Achievement First High School in Brooklyn. He had this to say: “I must model what being an “Upstander” is rather than reinforce the image of a “Bystander”. Students have no choice but to place their trust in the adults at school, but it creates a much better situation for all when children’s trust in teachers is actually earned by way of the teachers’ insistence upon mutual respect for everyone. Teachers should not merely demand mutual respect, we should model it. This is a daunting task sometimes, as we are only human, but upon choosing this profession we should understand that it is the most important job there is and treat it as such, for these children are the greatest hope for a kinder, more courageous, enlightened, and empathetic America where people truly are free to experience life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If America is viewed by the world as a bully, where do we think that started? As teachers, we have a great opportunity to help eradicate bullying once and for all.”
While searching for a way to join the war on bullying it was important for me to align myself with an organization that recognizes the enormous scope of the work needed to truly make a difference and ways to carry that out. GLSEN works with educators, policy makers, community leaders and students on the urgent need to address anti-LGBT behavior and bias in schools. GLSEN strives to protect students from bullying and harassment, to advance comprehensive safe schools laws and policies, to empower principals to make their schools safer, and to build the skills of educators to teach respect for all people. They have also designed a guide to help educators create a safe space for all of their students called The Safe Space Kit (www.SafeSpaceKit.com), which is easily accessible and only $20.00.
This July, Jonah and I and our entire board of directors will attend GLSEN’s Training of Teachers (TOT) weekend where we will receive four days of comprehensive training on how to equip teachers with tools and tactics to handle bullying behavior in their classrooms. We’ll then set off on our quest to carry this training into as many of the 1,700 – plus New York City schools as we can. GLSEN has created a grassroots organization where everyday community members like you and me can step up and help our educational system become the safe space our children deserve. For more information visit GLSEN at www.glsen.org and find the nearest chapter to your community. And if there is no chapter near you, then start one. If I can do it, you can too. It is our civic duty to help our students and teachers.