First Official Guest Post! - Monsters in the Classroom: Handling Homophobia
I am incredibly excited and honored to introduce you to Jessica Sowards, a teacher/writer/artist I am honored to call my colleague and friend. Now revel in her intelligent, compassionate, awesomeness!
Monsters in the Classroom
The marker squeaks as I drag it across the board. My students are poised behind me, pencils and papers ready. They have a simple assignment: write down as many words as they can think of that describes who they are. While they write, I write. Tit for tat. Lead by example. I begin my list:
I pause and look around the room. My students now get the idea and have started to write their own lists. I take a deep breath and keep going.
A few students go ‘huh’ at the last one, but then go back to writing. I see a few of them jot down Christian on their list. One student writes down Muslim. Another student writes down something, then erases it and replaces it with a question mark.
One more beat and I raise the marker again. In a steady hand, I finish my list.
I look at the word on the board, black standing out against white, and carefully erase the smudge I made of the ‘Q’ and rewrite it. I’m wasting time, but I am about to discover something heavy, weighty about my students. When I turn around, I will see who trusts me and who now doesn’t. I place the cap back on the marker, count a beat of five in my head, and turn around. The students now have a clear view of the board.
I see one student in the back smile, grin wide and teeth showing, before ducking their head back down to their list. We’ve shared a secret, something between the two of us, a mental handshake. I see you there, we both say without words. I focus on their grin instead of the student now looking at me in disgust.
Every year, I know it’s coming. I try to prepare myself, but there is always a moment of shock when one of my students opens their mouth and a monster leaps out. This time, it goes like this:
He comes in tense, shoulders pulled up to his ears. He slouches in his chair and affects an air of arrogance, legs sprawled. He doesn’t care, his posture screams. Why should he care? The tenseness in his jaw tells another story.
Before class, he had to read a short article by a trans woman and the danger of navigating a world that sees gender as a dichotomy. The author talks about the violence she has experienced for doing simple things like shopping for clothes or standing in line at the store.
One of my students, a young woman in the front row, starts the class discussion: “But why should anyone care what she does with her life? It’s her life! She’s allowed to be who she wants.”
I smile briefly to myself. Their knowledge of gender issues is still in its fledgling stage, but they are trying to understand. I haven’t had to correct anyone yet on pronoun usage and I quietly thank the visibility of more trans people in the media for that. But even as I am thankful, I keep a wary eye on the man still glaring from his chair in the corner.
“Well, it’s like why people get so angry about gay people, ya know?” Another student chimes in. “Like why do people care about that shi– stuff? You remember that football player that attacked those two gay dudes just because they were walking down the street holding hands? Like what did those guys do to him? Nothing. They were just holding hands.”
The class nods. It was all over the local newspapers. Last year, a football player at our school jumped out of his friend’s car and chased a couple down the street. When he caught up to them, he beat them both. His friends stayed in the car and did nothing.
My football players shift uncomfortably in their seats. My angry student is one of them. He makes a face and shrugs. “So? Gay people deserve it. We should go back to doing more of that sort of thing.”
My spine goes rigid. The words are out in the room now, leaping and biting, a black oily mess of rage. I hadn’t planned on being a monster hunter, a lion tamer, but now I must. I approach his desk, but stay out of arm’s reach. It’s hard to be calm in these situations, hard to take the higher road, hard to be patient. Hard to be a teacher. Fuck. What do you do when a student becomes monstrous?
I keep my fists from clenching and swallow the angry words threatening to spill out of me. I step fully into his line of sight so all he can see is me.
“First, I want you to know that I do not stand for that sort of talk in my classroom, just like I am not okay with any sort of hate speech.”
He shrugs. “Just saying.”
I nod. “Second, I love women.”
“In fact, I’ve been attracted to a lot of different people in my life, regardless of their gender. You think I should die?”
He looks down at his desk.
“Look at me. Do you think I deserve to die?” I try to keep my stance relaxed, but I fear that I am coming off as a scared kitten ready to fight a junkyard dog. At least my voice doesn’t shake or give away how hard my heart pounds.
“No. You’re okay, but gay men deserve to die.” He goes back to studying his desk.
“Ah, so you think my friends deserve to die and some of my students. You think people you’ve never met, who’ve done nothing to you, deserve to die?”
“Well, I’m just saying that if a guy hit on me, he’d–”
“And I am just saying that I never want to hear something like that in this classroom ever again.” I back away from his desk and turn back to the rest of the class. I chant in my head teachable moment, teachable moment, teachable moment. I keep up the mantra until I don’t feel the need to immediately lash out.
“Since we brought up the situation from last year, there’s something called toxic masculinity and I think we need to talk about what that is. It will help us better understand why people– in particular men– react violently when they encounter someone who doesn’t fit certain expectations of gender or sexuality. It will also help us better understand what the author was talking about.”
I dismiss the class and head back to my office. My head weighs too much; my fingers are cold and numb. I never know if I handle these moments right. I play them out in my head again and again, mind fumbling just as badly as my hands do with my office keys. Should I have kicked the student out? Should I have just ignored what he said? I can’t bring myself to do either. One lets him play the victim; the other makes my silence seem complacent.
I sit and take deep breathes in the quiet of my office. I can hear my friend clearly saying in my head, ‘Fuck that kid. Who gives a shit if you were mean to him? He’s the problem.’ I want to agree, but can’t.
There’s a reason I share my sexual identity with my students, why I talk about how I view my own gender. It’s not just for the kids who quietly whisper to me after class ‘thank you’ or write me notes about coming out to their friends and family. That’s most of it, yes, but it’s also in part for my students like the one today. Maybe my words will get through, maybe he will pause the next time he gets ready to call someone ‘gay’ or a ‘fag.’ Maybe it will stop him from getting out of a car and beating a young man for being in love with another young man.
Or maybe, at the very least, it will inspire his friends sitting next to him to step in and stop him, to become defenders instead of idle bystanders.
I can only hope.
Jessica Sowards is an an instructor at Marshall University where she works with college freshmen who have difficulty in reading and writing by teaching them skills they need in order to be successful in college, the workforce, and life. Her classes focus on the rhetoric of identities and the intersection of race, class, gender, and sexuality. She resides in Huntington, WV.