We Say “Gay” in My Classroom

 
 
There are some giggles you dread as a middle school teacher.  


 
Like when one of your students loses all control over a line of poetry. 


 
It happened most recently over these lines of Dylan Thomas


 
 
“Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

 


 
 
There it was. The G-A-Y word. The one thing with which adolescent boys and Florida Governors cannot contend. 

One of my 8th graders thought it was the height of hilarity. 


 
“You know that word here just means ‘Happy,” I said.  


 
And he lost it some more.  


 
I tried logic. 


 
“I’m gay. You’re gay. Sometimes we’re all gay.” 


 
A renewed outburst.  


 
“You’re probably the gayest student in my class.” 


 
And the laughter stopped.  


 
“No, you come in here laughing and gay just about every day,” I said.  


 
The frown on his face was serious.  


 
“Me, too. I’m hoping to have a really gay weekend.”  


 
Which seemed to break him. He got up, walked to the other side of the room and sat silently in the corner.  


 
Not exactly the reaction I was hoping for


 
Some people just can’t take the truth. 


 
Like the fact that there are gay kids in middle school.  


 
And, no, I don’t just mean “Happy.” 


 
There are gay kids. 


 
 And straight kids. 


 
 And trans kids


 
 And all kinds of kids.  


 
There are black kids and white kids, Muslim kids and Christian kids, Latinos and Lithuanians, Italians and Iranians, girls, boys and all genders in between.  


 
There are tall kids and short kids. Fat kids and thin kids. And, yes, some kids who like other kids in ways which all adults might not approve. 


 
However, some people are too juvenile to deal with it – they can’t even say the word or can’t even endure someone else saying it!  


 
That’s not so bad when you’re 13 and terrified of your own sexuality, anxious that anyone might question your cis privilege.  


 


 You still have time to grow out of such sophomoric hijinks.  

 
 
But it’s worse when you’re a counterfactual zealot like Ron DeSantis passing laws like the “Don’t Say Gay Bill.” 

I’m glad I don’t live in the Sunshine state, but you know ALEC will bring their own copycat version of this fascism to the rest of us sooner or later.


 
Forbid teachers from talking about gender identity and sexual orientation?  


 
Allow parents to sue schools for any comment they take offense to? 


 
Things are tough enough in middle school simply because we’re not such cowards. 


 
We say “gay” and embrace all its multiple meanings – often at once.  


 
 “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” but we talk about everything else.  


 
And we have to! 


 
It is incumbent on teachers to acknowledge the reality before them.  


 
We have to recognize our students for who they are.  


 
That doesn’t mean labeling them. It doesn’t mean trying to convince them of anything in particular about their identities.  


 
But it does mean admitting that identity exists. And it means refusing to accept the intolerance of those who refuse to accept others for who they are. 


 
When a student tells you their pronouns, you listen


 
When a student draws a pride flag on their notebook, you tell them it’s beautiful.

When a student tells you in confidence that they feel ugly, hurt or broken because of what their pastor or parent or classmate said, you tell them they’re marvelous and not to change a thing!

Because we don’t have the luxury to be judgmental. 

It’s not in our job description.

We teach our kids no matter who they are. We love them for who they are. And if DeSantis or any other adult has a problem with that, they can just fuck off! 


 
Silencing the grown-ups in school won’t change who the kids are. It will just forbid us from mentioning reality. It will permit us to recognize only the tiniest fraction of who our students are and leave a de facto shroud over the rest.   


 
I refuse to turn my classroom into a closet.  



 
It might make the most bigoted adults feel better. It might relieve grown-up fears that just talking about other ways to live is enough to mold someone into something against their nature.  

 
 
As if such a thing were possible.  

But it won’t help the kids.


 
People don’t become their sexuality. They discover who they were all along – and ultimately no piece of legislation can stop that. It can make that search more difficult, painful and riddled with guilt. But you are who you are.   


 
It’s regressive shame-based norms like these that encourage little boys to bash those who are different.

 
 
That make them feel the only safety lies in violence against the other so no one questions who they are, themselves.  


 

That scares them enough to giggle at a three-letter word embedded in a poem.

 
 
And speaking of my giggle goose, eventually he got himself under control.  


 

Before the end of the period he came back to the table.

Silently, swiftly, and soberly, he sat down with the rest of us ready to continue discussing “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight.” 

Not a titter or laugh. 


 
It wasn’t until a week later that he turned to me with a smile and asked: 


 
“Mr. Singer, did you have a gay weekend?” 


 
I did, Buddy. I did. 


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

Teaching the War in Ukraine is Fighting the War at Home 

 
 
How does one teach about war?  


 
With pictures or words? 


 
With speeches or documentation? 


 
With prayers or curses? 


 
With laughter or tears? 


 
I began my class like I always do – with a question


 
“Has anyone heard about what’s happening in Ukraine?” I asked.  


 
A few hands, but they had only heard the words. They didn’t know what was happening.  


 
So I showed my 8th graders a short video that summarized events so far. I drew a map of Europe and Asia on the board. I outlined Ukraine, Russia and the European union. I explained about the Soviet Union and its collapse. I explained about NATO and the struggle for power and prestige.  


 
When I was done, there was a moment of silence. They were all staring up at me. It was one of those rare moments of stillness, a pregnant pause before the questions started raining down.  


 
A patter at first, then a storm. 


 
They asked about what they were hearing at home. They searched for corroboration, explanation and/or other viewpoints. 


 
One child asked if this was NATO’s fault. If it was President Biden’s doing. 


 
Another asked how it would affect us and why we should care. 


 
And yet another asked about nuclear proliferation and whether this war meant the end of the world.  


 
I couldn’t answer all of their questions, though I tried. When there was something I couldn’t say or didn’t know, I pointed them in a direction where they might find some answers.  


 
But it led to some interesting discussion.  


 
Then I asked them if they had talked about any of this in their other classes – perhaps in social studies. They all said no, that a few teachers had promised to get to it after finishing the 13 colonies or another piece of mandated curriculum.  


 
I was surprised but not shocked. I know the tyranny of the curriculum.  


 
I was only able to talk about this, myself, because of the scope and sequence of Language Arts. You see, it was poetry time and I was about to introduce my students to Alfred Lord Tennyson and “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” 


 
For those who don’t recall, the poem tells the true story of the battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. A cavalry regiment of British troops charged Russian gunners and were mostly shot to pieces.  


 
It’s a pillar of English poetry and a perfect opportunity to talk about warfare in general and Ukraine in particular since the battle took place in the same general area of the world. 


 
In the poem, a general mistakenly orders the soldiers on horseback armed only with swords to charge the enemy armed with cannons and guns.  


 
Tennyson writes


 
“Theirs not to make reply, 
   Theirs not to reason why, 
   Theirs but to do and die.” 


 
And after the result is graphically portrayed, the speaker extols their virtue: 


 
“When can their glory fade? 
O the wild charge they made! 
   All the world wondered. 
Honour the charge they made! 
Honour the Light Brigade, 
   Noble six hundred!” 


 
So I ask my students what they think about it. Is it a soldier’s duty to follow orders no matter what? Should they question those orders?  


 
Typically, most of them back up Tennyson.  


 
And then I present them with an 80s heavy metal video by Iron Maiden of the song “The Trooper.”

 
 
The video uses images from a silent movie version of the Tennyson poem while singer Bruce Dickinson wails the story of a single soldier of the Light Brigade being senselessly gunned down and dying alone, forgotten on the battle field. 


 
It certainly gives them something to think about as they watch black and white horses flung in the air and our spandex clad narrator commenting on the situation with hairspray piled locks.  


 
Students end up leaving the class continuing the debate with each other about heroism and the waste of war.  


 
I certainly have my own opinions on the matter, but I keep them to myself.  


 
The way I see it, this isn’t the time for me to insert my opinion into the class. It’s an opportunity for my students to think through the problem, themselves.  


 
And, frankly, that’s really the point of most of school.  


 
It’s not the transmission of knowledge. Teachers can’t magic information into children’s heads.  


 
Instead, we provide opportunities to learn. We encourage students to think. We’re more like gardeners than anything else. We water, we weed, we make sure the soil is fertile. But it is up to the child to grow and in which direction to strive.  


 
That’s why far right scare mongers are so ignorant and absurd when they try to constrain teachers from teaching about history or racism.  


 
These campaigns are not aimed at educators. They are aimed at students.  


 
The goal is to offer children only one path in which to grow.  


 
They want to stifle thought, stifle free expression, stifle intellectual freedom by removing the option to think.  


 
They want to remove the opportunity.  


 
It may not be as dramatic as Putin invading. “Shot and shell” may not be flying. But the forces of fascism are equally at work on the minds of our children.  


 
In teaching about the war in Europe, educators are waging a battle against the war at home. 

Zhyvitʹ revolyutsiyeyu!

 
Viva la revolución! 

Long live the revolution!


 

Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

The Absurdity of PROTECTING Kids from the Holocaust Narrative ‘Maus’ 

 
Nudity and bad language.  


 
That’s a Tennessee school board’s excuse for banning Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus.”  


 
Not Holocaust denial.  


 
Not antisemitism. 

Not a hundred other things they don’t want to admit to themselves about themselves.


 
It was simply a dirty drawing and some curse words. 


 
The graphic novel focuses on the cartoonist and his estranged father. Spiegelman slowly unravels the true story of how his dad survived the Holocaust. All the while, the son draws the narrative portraying Jewish people as mice and Germans as cats. 

It’s a work of literature that looks directly into the unfathomable and recontextualizes it into something we can attempt to understand.

The committee at Columbia University awarded the story a Pulitzer Prize – the only graphic novel yet to win such a prestigious award.

But the Tennessee school board awarded it their walking papers.

And why?

Naughty words and risqué images.


 
In particular, the board objected to eight bad words and the drawing of a nude woman.  


 
On its Website, district administrators posted the following explanation of their action


 
“One of the most important roles of an elected board of education is to reflect the values of the community it serves. The McMinn County Board of Education voted to remove the graphic novel Maus from McMinn County Schools because of its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide. Taken as a whole the board felt this work was simply too adult-oriented for use in our schools.” 


 
Can you imagine living in a community that values refraining from swear words and covering up the human body more than telling the truth about genocide


 
Can you imagine putting a premium on decorum and propriety over an honest portrayal of events? 


 
And who are the McMinn County Board of Education to say these words and this image are “unnecessary” to tell the story!? 


 
It’s the Holocaust! It’s not a Disney theme park! 


 
If you’re talking about the systematic murder of 6 million Jewish people and 5 million non-Jewish people, wouldn’t it be appropriate to use some bad language!?  


 
To their credit, the image the school board objects to isn’t one of mice being tortured and murdered in a concentration camp. It’s not the genitals of naked mice – after all, aren’t mice always naked?  


 
It’s the drawing of the author’s mother who couldn’t live with the atrocities she endured and committed suicide. His father discovers her naked body in the bathtub.  


 
There’s nothing salacious about it.  


 
It’s shocking. It’s disturbing. It’s deeply sad.

But that’s exactly what it’s meant to be.

To react – as this board has – is the height of callousness.

Here we have the story of so many deaths, so many murders, and all they can do is decry the way it is told.

As a person of Jewish ancestry, it hits me hard.

Imagine being told that the story of your family’s murder is only acceptable if it isn’t upsetting.

It’s only acceptable if it doesn’t provoke a reaction in your heart – only if it keeps your eyes dry and your throat unstopped.

But that’s the point! It SHOULD be upsetting! It should hurt your heart! It should make your eyes leak and your throat close up.

However, school director Tony Allman said something that disproved the fiction that the board’s action was limited to pure decorum.

In the meeting minutes he was quoted as saying, “It shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids, why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff? It is not wise or healthy. Being in the schools, educators and stuff we don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff.” 

You’re wrong, Sir.

You DO need to promote this stuff.

Not encourage people to engage in future Holocausts but to promote that it DID happen so that it will not happen again.

Because on Oct 27, 2018, it happened again at the Tree of Life synagogue in my hometown of Pittsburgh when a gunman killed 11 and wounded six.


 
In August 2017, it happened at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when hundreds of marchers threw Nazi salutes and waved Swastika flags while shouting “Siege Heil” and “Jews will not replace us!”

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) recorded more than 2,100 acts of assault, vandalism and harassment against Jewish people in 2021 – an increase of 12 percent over the previous year. This is the highest level of antisemitic incidents since ADL’s tracking began in 1979. This includes five fatalities directly linked to antisemitic violence and another 91 individuals targeted in physical assaults. 


Assault, harassment and vandalism against Jews remain at near-historic levels in the U.S.


The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2020 hate crime statistics showed not only that hate crimes were up for all minority groups, but crimes targeting Jewish people made up 54.9% of all religious bias crimes. 

According to the American Jewish Committee, nearly one out of every four Jews in the U.S. has been the subject of antisemitism over the past year.


Seventeen percent of respondents in the committee’s survey said they had been the subject of an antisemitic remark in person, while 12% said they were the victim of an antisemitic remark online. Three percent of Jews who responded to the poll said they were the target of an antisemitic physical attack. 

And this school board thinks the problem is a book that merely reports such events in the past.

Your children don’t need protection from the STORY of the Holocaust.

They need protection from the Holocaust, itself.

They need protection from it happening again – from the kind of violence and bigotry on the rise today.

They need protection from becoming the mice.

They need protection from becoming the cats.

They need adults brave enough to take a stand against these horrors.

It’s just too bad that you aren’t brave enough to do it, yourselves.


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!