For what we have done, and for what we have left undone
From 1991 to 2001 and again from 2007 to 2009, I was a teacher. I taught everything from preschool to college. I taught in small groups and physical and online classrooms and in outdoor environments. I met many, many children, mostly grouped around the ages between 12 and 15. I’ve had students whose parents were in prison. I had students whose parents had palatial houses. I had students who had crushes on me and students who hated me. And I have had LGBTQ students as well.
What’s sad is that I didn’t know anything about which students were in the latter group until I stopped teaching and started writing, and even this identified group I know statistically can only be the barest edge of the number of LGBTQ students I actually encountered while I was a teacher. I can also tell you that at no time in any of my teaching career was there any mention of gay students. Not to keep them from being bullied, not for anything. Queer students did not exist in any of the administrative minds while I was a teacher. And I confess, to my shame, that I didn’t think much of it then either. I did a little from 2007-09. But I had no curricular power then, and little classroom power either. At best I could quell any trash talk against LGBTQ persons. It makes me sad, because the former students who have found me have a reaction no other reader or casual observer comes close to matching. The few times it has been face to face have become precious bits of diamond in my heart’s memory. They look at me, seeing their former teacher, the person of power over their young self, the person I know most of them can’t help but think of as "Mrs. Cullinan." Then they see my books. They see what my books are about. Then they look at me again, a sharp, intense joy in their eye.
The look says, "You wrote this for me. You, my teacher, see me."
It’s moments like this that make me want to be a teacher again. I want to try again and really look this time, and I want to be deliberate in my inclusion. I want to find the line of equality championing I could get away with as a public educator and lean so hard over it that I strain my back. I want to walk the halls more than I did when I taught. I want to go to the games and the events, and I want to look and listen hard. I want to find every teachable moment I missed and tell those queer students that I do see them, that I do hear them, and that I will speak so loudly for them whenever they need it that their ears will bleed.
I want to make sure they never put a gun to their head, or hang themselves, or jump off a bridge.
But it’s this point exactly why I had to quit teaching. Oh, I was good. I was good at the whole of it. I was good at the academics. My kids learned, every last one of them. I was good at individualizing and optimizing instruction. I was freaking amazing at classroom organization. I was so put-together that my kids milled around like chickens in a barnyard, at least to the untrained eye, but even in what looked like a lax environment, there was iron-clad structure and a hell of a lot of learning. A hell of a lot of safety. I was good with the kids too. I listened to them. I watched out for them. I fought for them in counseling meetings. I got them special passes when they needed them. I put in extra time to make sure they understood they were valued. I gave them everything I had, and more. I made them my whole focus, and when they bled, so did I. And when I couldn’t reach them, or when I accidentally missed one of them, when I failed them by failing to do, I felt I had let them down.
I blame my need to save the whole world on the Lutherans. In the church in which I was raised, God was a force full of so much good that He loved us anyway, and the position of my community’s faith was that in light of that love, there was no acceptable alternative but selfless service to that love. God’s gift to us was our self, and out of love, we should give it back. Every Sunday in church, we would recite the Brief Order of Confession and Forgiveness.
The pastor always forgave us after, on behalf of God, but I never missed the subtle message that maybe we should try a little harder even so. We should be more careful in what we do and take note of what we don’t do. That voice still rears when a boy scout sells popcorn at my door or the American Cancer Society calls me for money. It scolds me in the store if I don’t put an item back exactly where I found it if I change my mind and try to leave it on some random shelf as I pass. I want to be love, like God. I should try harder.
I’ve gotten better at declining the popcorn and giving my regrets to charities when I don’t have the money, but when I hear about young LGBTQ people taking their own lives because the future they see for themselves is truly that grim—well, I’m a teacher all over again, despairing because I realize I’ve missed someone, that I failed someone again. It doesn’t matter that I never knew these young people, that it’s the worst kind of hubris to believe one is responsible for the well being of the entire world, but it’s back to the Lutherans again. We were supposed to be as loving as God, and what we were taught was that God would love everyone. Yes, our lives are destined to be nothing but failure in our zeal to emulate God. We were supposed to try anyway.
I am angry too, however, and in this I feel very justified. I may be too small and insignificant to have reached out to young people with no connection to me, but greater organizations certainly could have. Their schools. Their local churches. Their governments and legislatures. Our Congress. Our President. They aren’t God either. But all those institutions exist to serve and protect the people of the community. And it’s never been more clear that they’re failing this group and failing hard.
I’m angry because we’re too busy protecting the sensibilities of non-LGBTQ persons to protect the lives of LGBTQ persons. I’m angry because so many of the people who shout hateful things at queer youth kneel before the same cross I did growing up and sing the same verses of "they will know we are Christians by our love" that I still remember. I’m angry because grown, sane adults in positions of power believe with their entire core of being that these deaths are acceptable because the measures needed to stop them are so unacceptable.
We have not done enough. We have left a great deal undone. I keep trying. I hope that every pirate notification I get for my books is an LGBTQ youth getting a story just for them in the only way they can, because they absolutely can’t let their parents find out what they want to order legitimately. I tell every gay rights organization every time they contact me that I would love, love, love to work with LGBT youth and volunteer in schools and anything at all that I could do that remotely smells like that. I keep my eyes and ears open for opportunities to work with kids and schools for LGBTQ rights, and I keep hoping that someday I’ll have enough money when they send out the calls for the Iowa Safe Schools dinner to attend. I go to Lobby Day with One Iowa and write my state and congressional representatives and send out every auto-mailer on gay rights I get.
I’m leaving a lot undone. I’ll die with a lot left undone. I have learned in twenty years to take it a little less personally, my humanity, my inability to love like the God of my youth. I have made my peace with how quiet my voice is in the wind of the world, but I haven’t let it stop me from shouting, either.
I will not, though, make peace with the institutions which keep failing this population. I will not look aside when the huddles of protection and the collection of voices which swear to protect keep leaving so many vulnerable souls out in the cold. And I will absolutely not accept a single voice, institutional or otherwise, suggesting this population should remain ignored.
We are many of us who would speak for this group. We are dispersed around the world, and our existences cross languages and cultures and faith, but we are many, many voices who shout for these youth. Like the communities these youth have yet to find, we are arranged in quirky, erratic patterns which will take work to unearth. But we are here. We are here, and we see, and our voices all rise into the wind together.