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Confessions Of A Second Grade Teacher: Homosexuality and the Next Generation

By November 1, 2015 0

“Taboo” is one of those words I took for granted as a kid. I liked to use it because I thought I knew what it meant. Throughout my wonderfully fulfilling but ultimately sheltered childhood, anything “taboo” was kept from my ignorant eyes until I was in at least high school. I knew the word because I read it in books, not because I was racy, edgy, or at all “in the know.”

Suddenly, at age 26, I know the meaning of the word all too well. Since my fulfilling-yet-sheltered childhood, I’ve become a second grade teacher in a quaint, small-town district. I love my job. I love my kids. And I’ll be honest: sometimes my personal experiences of blissful ignorance come into play, and I forget that it’s 2015 and not 1991, and I forget how much more open and media-saturated the world is for these kids today. 

So, one day, it’s snack time, and I’m stuffing mailboxes with notices about cheerleading, wrestling practice, math club. The kids are noisy but not disrespectfully so. And then, from a table right to my right, I hear the distinct word, “…lesbian.”

My heart stopped. Literally, I completely froze. The emotion that took over my body was foreign to me; I think it was something maternal and protective, almost innate, but my ears were ringing with the word. Surely, one of my seven-year-olds had not just uttered the word, “lesbian.”

Her neighbor answers, “Yeah, I know what ‘gay’ is. I know what gay people are.”

I think I grew Mama Bird wings then. I swooped them into the hallway. With ringing ears and an overly protective, maternal instinct riding on high, I forcefully explained to the girls that these were tricky words, that they could not be used around “everyone,” and that they shouldn’t be used in the classroom. “I’m glad you know what they mean, and that is ok,” I told them, “but some kids don’t, and it’s not our job to talk to your friends about it. That’s a conversation for home, for moms and dads to have with their own kids.”

Sometime about now, my brain begins kicking itself in the ass; conversation for moms and dads? C’mon. How many of us actually heard about all the “taboo” subjects of our adolescence from our moms and dads? How many of us heard about it… just like this? During snack time, on the playground, or on the bus?

I sent the girls back inside to finish their snack. The incident stayed with me throughout the day. It was more the shock of hearing the words “lesbian” and “gay” out of the mouths of babes than anything else; I was ready to get emails, phone calls, field concerns from parents; “what is my son/daughter hearing in your classroom?”

Let me address the anger that’s probably rising up in you right now: I am by no means homophobic, nor would I ever judge, mistrust, or discount another person based on anything inherent to their person or personality. While I know this does not equally compare, I have a brother with special needs, and if anyone knows something about not judging someone by their cover or by society’s stereotype, it’s me. I grew up being judged and criticized for his shortcomings. I would never apply the same hatred or judgmental attitude to anyone else, fighting their own battle, living their own life.

And so I ask myself, what am I doing here? Now it’s 3:45 p.m. and I’m recounting the incident with my co-workers, all of whom are lovely, intelligent, middle-aged women. They agree that I should let the parents of the children involved know of the incident, just in case. They agree that it’s unusual for kids to throw those terms around, and it’s worth letting parents know that these words have been spoken, that they’re in their vocabulary, and if anything, that they didn’t hear them out of any cause of my own.

About 4:45 p.m.: I run into the mom of the second girl, the one who answered, “I know what ‘gay’ means,” in the hallway at school. Initially, I’m elated that I have the chance to talk to her in person rather than craft an email explaining the happening. I share the story with her and preface that there’s no real concern on my end, other than the fact that I wanted her to know that these words were being used, and that I had asked her child to be aware that not all her peers will know what these words mean, and to be careful and prepared for that fact.

As I began my story, the mother stopped me mid-sentence and said, “Okay, so I’m not really sure what the problem is here.”

For the second time that day, I froze.

She went on to inform me that her daughter has an aunt who is gay, and that the student therefore is very well and intelligently aware of the meaning of the word and its connotations. And for the remainder of the conversation, I looked and felt like an utter ass. I was coming from a place of genuine concern and simply hoping to inform, and suddenly, I found myself feeling the need to plead and prove that as a person, I am not judgmental, nor am I homophobic, nor am I attempting to be old-fashioned, misleading, or intolerant.

And then I realized that if I felt the need to convince this woman that I do not in any way hate gays, then unfortunately this conversation had gone horribly, horribly wrong.

I backed down and took her lashing. I had no idea that this student knew the connotations of the language of homosexuality because she had first-hand experience with it in her family. I had no idea that she was speaking from an appropriate, informed point of view.

I realized then that my true fear was that the kids — being only seven years old, after all — were speaking from an uninformed point of view. My real horror was that the students did not know what they were saying, or what they were talking about, because I knew that was how mistakes were made, misinformation was opined, and casual conversations turned to slander.

But if they did know what they were talking about, I reflect in hindsight, is it appropriate? Is it taboo, or not taboo? 

In hindsight, I justified my reaction this way: if you’re talking about someone being gay, you’re talking about someone’s sexual preferences or orientation, which to me is an inappropriate category for any young kid. A person is a person is a person. If my student wants to talk about her aunt, why does she have to be her “gay aunt?” Why do you have to talk about the “gay guy” on TV, can’t it just be “the guy?” That’s the message I’d rather send. If a student came in talking about how their high school brother took a girl on a date, or how their middle school sister had a crush on a boy, I’d nix the same talk. That’s just me. It’s “taboo.” They’re seven, and I’m responsible for their little world for seven hours of the day; I didn’t want that on my conscious.

At the end of our conversation, the mother took a moment to impart some wisdom to me: “This is the generation we live in now. Gotta get with it! Kids are going to know what these words mean, they’re going to know what these things are.”

It’s taken me weeks to get over this, and everyone I talk to has a different opinion. Some people think the mother should have been more understanding of my role as a teacher, educator, and safe-guarder, rather than give me grief for a misunderstanding when I had no idea of her family’s private circumstances. Some people kindly tell me that I overreacted, that I was wrong, and that I was offensive. Some people just nod and say, “yeah, there’s no way I could be a teacher!”

At the end of the day, this isn’t about me being a teacher. This is about me growing up to hear words and phrases that I have come to deem as “taboo.” This is about the world moving forward and our “PC” scope as a society gradually widening with each new generation. This is about a generation gap, even of a mere 20 years, between myself and my kids. This is about, I hope, a step in the right direction. I am glad the woman gave me grief; it forced me to reassess my thinking and my practices as an adult in 2015. I am glad the incident happened, because it allowed me the chance to have a conversation with my friends and colleagues about what exactly would be the right reaction to have.

My ultimate conclusion is that there isn’t one, that it’s all hearsay and circumstantial, and that if my kids had been, as I feared, sneering about gay people when I intervened, then I could have had an opportunity to correct their narrow, judgmental little minds and remind them that everyone is beautiful. Instead, I embarked on a most likely innocent conversation and gave it a negative connotation, maybe against my better “hindsight judgement” but not against my immediate, in-the-moment judgement.

For that, I can’t exactly apologize. I can apologize, however, for assuming the worst when perhaps the only real trigger in the situation were those ever-powerful buzzwords themselves, and the fact that they were ever “taboo” to begin with.