It’s written by a Catholic high school teacher and focuses on the transforming experience of not only a brave young woman named Sara, but of all at her Catholic high school who were open to the authenticity of her coming out.
I don’t think many of us consider classrooms as sacred places. Nor do we imagine being blessed within their walls. We hope for teachable moments, for assignments done well, or perhaps just better than the ones from last month. We hope for a thank-you note for, say, a letter of recommendation, and for times of silence that actually mean something. Many days we hope just to make it through with some purpose and sanity.
Yet once in a while the place we meet our students becomes the ground for something so moving that it shifts the assumptions we brought with us that day and sends us away awakened, edified, and transformed.
I call a moment like this a blessing, and it happened for me one Friday morning in March during my twenty-sixth year of teaching.
During second period, a senior named Sara stood up in front of forty-five or so of her peers and several adults to deliver her “gender project.” After requesting the use of a podium and then arranging her folder on top of it, she looked up and confidently faced her audience. She was really going to go through with this, I thought, as I watched with both admiration and concern.
When Sara approached me earlier that week, I had asked her, “Do you really want to do this?” It was both excitement and apprehension that fueled my question. Yet I knew that there was really wasn’t any way to say no to Sara. She had a look in her eye; it was the look of a focused and healthy young woman. I hadn’t seen that look reflected in her face for a long time. I sensed very clearly that Sara knew what she needed to do; she was on a mission.
And now as she began her presentation, her voice was quiet but clear and audible. Everyone in the room sensed that something important was about to happen. Some of my colleagues and I, as well as Sara’s closest friends, had been tipped to the possibility of what she was about to do.
Sara noted that as part of her “gender project,” she had recently talked with young gay people and one older gay woman, and she proceeded to share the reflections each had offered her. Next she read from a postcard she had found, which listed reasons for supporting gay rights.
As Sara spoke, I scanned the group of young people that comprised her audience. Was there a way to read their thoughts?
I looked at the young woman who, along with her parents, had invited Sara into her house last June. She too was a state-caliber soccer player who thought that rescuing Sara from the cold of her family history would be good for Sara. They’d win a state championship together. Yet she hadn’t reckoned on the turmoil: Sara’s suicide attempt, her mood swings, the invasion of her space, the friction of sharing close quarters with another person.
Another young woman in the front row was also a teammate of Sara’s. She seems sometimes sour, as if life has been cruel to her. What was she thinking?
Part of Sara’s presentation involved relating the story of one of the people she had interviewed for her research. This person’s name was Shelley, and her high school experiences, as related by Sara, had a profound impact on me: “Mom liked to throw things at us. Her favorite words for me were ‘fucking dyke.’”
As Sara recited these words I lowered my head into my hands. I had written Sara a note earlier in the year after she had written a piece about her sordid family history. I remember that October evening as I sat at the dining room table reading her essay. I wanted so much to find her – wherever she was – and give her a big hug. I remember thinking, “No kid deserves this kind of life, especially this one. How could anyone generate this kind of hatred for a beautiful kid like Sara?” It was one of those moments in teaching when you just wonder about the kids who sit in front of every day, when it hits you that there is pain beneath the lack of motivation, wounded spirits beneath the bravado.
When Sara spoke about an English teacher who hadn’t taught Shelley much English but a lot about acceptance of other people, a certain realization began to dawn. Further light was shed when I heard that Shelley, like Sara, had also attempted suicide in her senior year.
As Sara’s presentation progressed, I kept waiting for the slightest catch in her voice. Surely with the weight of all she was imparting, there had to come some display of emotion. Yet Sara calmly finished Shelley’s story by declaring that she was Shelley; and that she, Sara, was lesbian.
“There are a few gay people in this class, “ Sara noted, “and a heck of a lot in this school. They are not just ‘out there’ somewhere else.” She then said that she would be glad to talk to anyone about her life and her story, and that if people had a problem with her then they didn’t have to talk to her. “Most people I asked about coming out [in the way I just have] were very skeptical, but I figure it won’t matter to people who are really my friends. If people react badly, well, I only have two months left here, and I think I can take it.” With these words, Sara went back to her seat.
There was applause and then a long silence that no one quite knew how to end. Finally a young woman named Erica spoke up: “I just want you to know that what you just did is one of the bravest things I have ever seen.”
When students were told that the class was ended, more than a few gathered around Sara to thank her with words and hugs. I gave her a hug too.
David, a Native American, was one of the students who approached Sara. The handshake he offered her was a supreme, if awkward, gesture of deep respect. Chad, a tall, soft-spoken senior who pitches for the baseball team, later wrote that Sara’s presentation had brought tears to his eyes.
I’m still not sure what to make of that morning. As one of the students later wrote in his journal: “I never saw anything like it in my life. She just didn’t give a shit whay anybody thought.” How true! What I also know is that Sara has been a blessing to our school: a transfer student who came in as a soccer star and ended up breaking the long-standing silence about gays and lesbians at our school.
Sara said at one point after her Friday morning presentation that it had seemed a perfect time to come out; everybody had to do a project related to gender; it was third term, and her classmates had gotten to know her as an all-state soccer goalie, a fine student, and friend of many of the class leaders; and finally, and perhaps most important, the secret had been kept long enough: “I remember how much pain I went through and how alone I felt.”
After Easter break, I asked Sara whether she would be willing to talk to another class. Her willingness to do so confirmed for me that her coming to terms with her sexuality had made Sara a much healthier person. There are certain events of her childhood and adolescence with which she’ll have to struggle for the rest of her life. But her coming out (first to her friend and teammate, Helen, then to her “adopted” parents, other close friends, her brother, and finally, her class) seems to have sparked her energy and given her a sense of purpose. On several occasions she has been approached in the halls at school by students who heard about what she did and wanted to talk with her about their own questions on sexual identity. She said that those conversations repaid her for the risk she took and would more than make up for any grief she might ever suffer as a result of her coming out.
When Sara gave her speech for the second time, she agreed to add a question and answer session. Someone asked her what it felt like to be out. Sara noted that it felt as if she had been “covered with a layer of goo and shit,” but that she was now beginning to pick it off. Another of the questions was quite pointed: “There have been rumors that you are going to prom with your girlfriend. Are you?”
Sara responded in her soft-spoken, almost hesitant but ever-thoughtful manner: “I’m considering it, but I have to think about a lot of things, like how the administration would react. Also, people say that alumni and parents might be unhappy and call the school [to complain]. I have to consider how it would affect this class, too.”
Along with the other adults present, I was amazed at the perspicacity of her response. Rarely have I seen an eighteen –year-old mature enough to see so far beyond the boundaries of her own issues and identity the ramifications of her potential actions. Her classmates seemed to be completely behind her with regard her attendance at the school’s prom. “She pays tuition just like everybody else who will be attending,” they reasoned.
In the following days it became clear that the school’s principal and at least one of the assistant principals would be supportive of Sara if she did indeed decide to attend the prom with her girlfriend. The final decision would be hers.
Ultimately Sara decided not to go to the prom. Her best friend and her “adopted parent” had all expressed the sentiment that it would not be good for her to attend. I met with Sara that Monday morning. She was clearly having difficulty with the logic behind the position of her adopted parents and her friend, especially given the support they had shown her during her coming out process.
Yet once again I was struck by what a selfless move Sara had chosen to make. I believe that she was in fact ready to attend the prom with her girlfriend; and in so doing, ready to bring down a formidable barrier at our Catholic high school. Yet she was more inclined to consider the sentiments of the people who had literally taken her in off the streets, given her a home, and shown her love.
Some months later, a colleague and friend mentioned a homily he had heard at the inner-city Church he and his family attend. The homilist had suggested the idea of “resurrected” people – people who have been through an experience akin to death and come out the other side with a strength that enables them to do improbable things.
I believe that Sara is a person of the resurrection. She has been to the brink and seen death. Maybe that is where her courage comes from. Regardless, I know she did and continues to do improbable things.
Following are the discussion questions that accompany this story in Creating Safe Environments for LGBT Students: A Catholic Schools Perspective.
1. [Earlier] we discussed common experiences of LGBT youth along with some recent research findings concerning LGBT youth. How are these experiences and findings reflected in Sara’s story?
2. The author maintains that Sara’s coming out made her a much “healthier” person. What do you see as evidence for this?
3. Why does the author describe Sara as a “person of the resurrection”? Do you agree that Sara is such a person? Who are some people in your life that would fit this description?
For reviews of Creating Safe Environments for LGBT Students: A Catholic Schools Perspective, see the previous Wild Reed posts:
“A Courageous Document” - Kristin L. Gunckel and Adam J. Greteman (Education Book Review, 2007).
“A Valiant Effort” - Virginia Wilkinson (Education Review, July 4, 2007).
“A Useful, Essential, and Comprehensive Manual” - Gerald Walton (Canadian Journal of Education, July 2008).
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Confronting Classroom Homophobia
Coming Out: An Act of Holiness
The triumph of Love - An Easter Reflection
Trusting God’s Generous Invitation