Back in my elementary school teaching days, I allowed my fourth-grade students to bring in a special toy or small stuffie to place on their desks to give them comfort.
A month or so into the term, one of the boys, whom I will call Larry, brought in his collection of American Girl dolls and proudly displayed them all.
After some admittedly initial surprise, I let it be. If those dolls were Larry’s fond possessions, who was I to destroy his self-worth with stereotyped definitions of masculinity.
Unfortunately, there were two other boys who noticed and ridiculed him on the playground. When I overheard them calling Larry various homophobic slurs, I took those boys aside for a little chat.
I kept my voice calm and steady but made it abundantly clear that any further teasing on their part would result in severe consequences (such as missing recess until age 40). This was years before it became trendy to address the subject of bullying; it was instinctive for me to create a harmonious classroom where every child felt safe.
Larry’s two adversaries got the message, changed their behavior, and Larry went on to have two happy years (4th and 5th grades) in my room where he was one of the more popular kids.
Decades later, as a grown man, he sent me an email out of the blue. He thanked me for being his teacher and noted that my protecting him as a child made it possible for him in later life to “come out as a proud gay man.” It remains one of the most cherished compliments of my teaching career.
I recalled this episode after reading several particular ugly threads on Facebook and Twitter (where else?) accusing teachers of turning children gay, transgender, and bi-sexual through our diabolical “woke” methods of brainwashing. Of course, I did nothing of the sort with Larry; I just accepted him as he was and kept him safe from the junior versions of Ron DeSantis, Lauren Boebert, and Franklin Graham. In my view, kids are indeed born this way.
We teachers are used to bizarre accusations from the extremists of the Left and Right. But those on the Right are far more dangerous because they are setting educational policy in various states to ban books and literally whitewash American history. Florida is the main culprit with their governor trying to prove that he’s a bigger reactionary than Donald Trump. As the German Nazis once demonstrated, those who ban books eventually ban people.
Transgender children and drag queens are the new scapegoats for the 2024 presidential election. Apparently, kids questioning their gender identity and guys wearing dresses on stage are a greater threat to the American population than mass school shootings, attacks on our democracy, the rise of Christian religious extremism, and growing climate disruption. It’s a sick and sleazy tactic, but, as always, it seems to be working.
We teachers will continue undaunted because teaching is, in my view, a sacred profession.
Overworked, underpaid, insulted, and disrespected, we soldier on because we love the kids and are dedicated to seeing them grow and thrive. There is not one of us who wouldn’t give our lives for the students in our care. It’s only a tragedy that we don’t live in a culture that values education and those who help to provide it.
Other cultures, however, do. Thirty years ago, upon returning from a Sun Dance ceremony on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, I picked up two local women hitchhiking. We spent the next few miles chitchatting about this and that after which one of them asked what I did for a living. At first, I hesitated to answer because I still had doubts that I had chosen the correct life-path. Still, I told them I was a fourth-grade teacher at a small elementary school in rural Massachusetts.
After a few seconds, I felt a small hand on my shoulder and a whispered “wašté” (pronounced Washt-ay.) I recognized it as a Lakota word that translates as “It is good.”
It was less the word than her tone. It was a blessing, thanking me for choosing what was indeed a sacred life path. Any doubts I had vanished from that moment on.
Please take the time to thank the teacher in your or your children’s lives.
In these troubled times, it makes a big difference.