Saying something

One of the reasons I became a math teacher is because I liked how unemotional math is. Sure, I get excited about solving a problem and the beauty in patterns makes me feel something, but we never ask kids how the Pythagorean theorem makes them feel or ask them to interpret the metaphors in a derivation (I can hear the chorus of MTBoS-ers disagreeing right now…). It’s not like analyzing a book in ELA or discussing the impact of historical events in social studies. And so my class isn’t really set-up to be a place where we share our feelings. I’m friendly with the kids, and I will listen to their joys and frustrations, but mainly out of class. For the most part we’re there to solve math problems. This fits my personality. I get excited about things, maybe talk about Pokemon or TV with students, but I wouldn’t say I ever get emotional. Definitely not in front of the kids, but even not in front of friends and family.

Then the massacre at Pulse nightclub happened last Sunday morning. I spent that day looking at news reports and feeling worse and worse. As a gay man who has had to consider whether it was safe to hold my boyfriend’s hand in public, a shooting in a gay club is my worst nightmare. As my twitter feed scrolled by with news updates and reactions from the world, I would retweet what I found most powerful. I would also respond to things that I thought were horrible. I was making my feelings known very publicly on Twitter that I was upset and I was hurting and I was scared.

The whole time, though, I was thinking “What if my kids see this?” They’ve flat-out told me they read my feed, and have quoted tweets back to me in class. What if they read what I was writing? What would they think? I don’t keep the fact that I have a boyfriend from them, but I also don’t bring up my personal life in class very often. My weekend plans don’t factor in when we’re factoring a quadratic (pun unintended).

I will readily admit that, even though I work in a fantastic school with great kids, I still get nervous about being “out.” At my first job, my boss told me on the very first day “Thank god my son isn’t gay, I couldn’t stand it.” At my first school the kids used the f-slur like they were getting paid endorsements from Westboro Baptist Church. On the subway and on the street I’ve been called terrible things. Much of my extended family very publicly thinks gays are going to hell. While my current school is amazing, you never know who is going to react poorly, and the thought of having a moment where someone reacts poorly scares me.

But now all of the fears and things I kept inside were intersecting with my public life. I needed to post those things, to comment, just to help myself deal with it. Yeah, maybe some of my kids would see, but maybe they were struggling too. And maybe these young teens, who are still figuring out who they are, just took a giant step backward because clearly the world isn’t safe.

So not only did I post, I also decided to say something in each of my classes. I didn’t know if I would until my first class was ending, but I had been distracted all period and I needed to say something. It was horribly awkward for me. Like I said, I’m not very good with emotions. I said that I didn’t know where they stood on the spectrums of sexuality and religion and politics, but that what happened was a horrible thing. I told them I was really struggling to deal with it.  I said every time they used a slur, or even heard a slur used and didn’t say anything, they were contributing to a culture where Bad Shit like this can happen. I got choked up, which made me even more awkward. It also happened to be the last class of the year so I had to end my speech with something positive about how it had been a pleasure to teach them. The whole thing was not in my wheelhouse.

But the kids were silent and attentive. And several of them thanked me for saying something after the fact. Apparently I was the only one. One student sent me an email that night that made me cry because of how touching it was. And maybe it helped. Or maybe I’m just the emotional gay teacher now. I don’t know. I guess I’m writing this to sort of process it all. One of the harder things about being a teacher is that teaching content is actually only a small part of what we do. We have to model for the students how they should act in different situations. And that is a lot of responsibility. If I worked at a desk job I would be subdued but I would struggle privately. But I kept thinking that these kids needed to know that what happened WAS horrible. That they needed to know they didn’t have to be OK. Maybe they were getting an opposite message at home. Or maybe I needed to just tell myself that it was OK to not be OK. I don’t know. Ugh, feelings.

I guess the point is I’m glad that I said something. Maybe I lost some of the kids who think gays are gross. Maybe I won some kids who appreciated me being more human. Probably most of the kids will forget I said anything. But at this point I’m realizing the important thing is that I won’t forget, and when I wonder at the senselessness of the last week I can at least say that maybe there was one kid in my class who is terrified and by saying something I made them feel better.

I was going for self-assuring but worry this comes off as self-congratulatory. I don’t think I did anything special, I just needed to process, and I tend to process publicly. Apologies if this was melodramatic. I am gay, after all. 🙂

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5 thoughts on “Saying something

  1. Mattie – it is not self-congratulatory; it’s brave and necessary. Your students and school community are truly lucky to have someone willing to take emotional risks in order to raise awareness and challenge the silence. I think your students will never forget that day in your class.

  2. Thank you so much for this brave and honest post. I love working with new teachers (even older new teachers) because it helps me see teaching from new perspectives all the time. One thing I know is that all teaching is relational – even math. Every relationship is important – those with the kids, the material and you – you have to be yourself – thank you for being able to be that vulnerable.

  3. Thank you. Bravery is scary, but necessary. I don’t have the same perspectives that you do (as a straight white woman), but I’m also trying to process all of my emotions and figure out how the kids are reacting to things. And next year, I’m possibly taking over as the GSA advisor, which petrifies me, in that I don’t know how I can responsibly lead that group, who so desperately need some corner of a safe place. I have more processing work to do too.

  4. Hello! This post was recommended for The Best of the Math Teacher Blogs 2016: a collection of people’s favorite blog posts of the year. We would like to publish an edited volume of the posts at the end of the year and use the money raised toward a scholarship for TMC. Please let us know by responding via http://goo.gl/forms/LLURZ4GOsQ whether or not you grant us permission to include your post. Thank you, Tina and Lani.

  5. Here’s another possibility: maybe, for some kids, your remarks will be part of a collection that, together, change their attitudes about gayness. You are part of a team working to change the culture. Good for you.

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