We are back from our summer adventure, six-weeks of visiting friends and family, savoring the sights and sounds and tastes that are New England — sunsets like this one at the Green Harbor Marina, lobster rolls on Martha’s Vineyard, fried oysters at Haddads, sailing in Casco Bay, Maine, the lakes and mountains and covered bridges of Vermont; Fenway Park for both a Red Sox game and concert (James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt, also, in their own way, sounds of New England); the salty beach air and cool ocean swims — it was all glorious, made even more so because of the people we shared it with.
In between visits, I worked on my novel revisions and wrote some flash fiction.
One visit stands out though, a reunion with a former student, herself now an adult, a teacher too, about to to start the year as a department head in a new school. I taught this woman — I’ll call her S — when she was in junior high, and I remember her as an outgoing, funny girl, whose warm spirit and humor I enjoyed very much. We met for brunch, my partner and I, S and her wife, married now for five years. Over pancakes and eggs, she told me this story:
“Do you remember X (another student)?” S asked me.
I didn’t, only vaguely, though once the story started unfolding, memories emerged.
“Do you remember when you took a big group of us on the Walk for Hunger?”
I did. Each year in Massachusetts, Project Bread organizes The Walk for Hunger, a 20-mile walk through Boston and neighboring communities, to bring awareness and raise money to combat hunger in Massachusetts. Back then, a teacher in my twenties, I thought it was one way young people could feel empowered and helpful. Plus, I thought, walking twenty miles for a 12- or 13-year old was no easy feat. So, for several years, I organized a group of students to walk the route with me, teaching them, I hoped, about commitment, about being part of something larger than themselves, about ways they could make a real difference even as young kids, and about the reality of hunger around them.
“Do you remember,” S continued, “X and I started telling gay jokes and you told us to ‘keep the parachute open?”
I smiled. “I remember I used to always say ‘Your mind is like a parachute; it only works when it’s open.”
She nodded and went on. “We kept doing it, kept telling more jokes. One of our friends even walked away from us, saying we were jerks. But you just kept saying, ‘keep the parachute open.'”
I laughed at the memory, seeing the large group of kids I had with me that year, some of them straggling as we neared the finish, the Charles River beside us. The first weekend in May, some of those Walks were warm, though not all of them sunny.
S took a breath and continued: “Then, maybe a year or so later, X and I realized that you were probably gay. There was a woman who used to come to our basketball games; we figured out it was your partner, but being 13, we didn’t have the courage to apologize. X and I are still friends, (both of them lesbians), and every time we see each other– maybe once a year– we talk about this and how bad we felt, how much we wished we had apologized. So now, for the both of us, I’m officially apologizing. And I want to thank you,” she said, “for dealing so gracefully with us back then.”
It has been about thirty years since I told those girls to “keep their parachutes open.” So much time has gone by that I have only the vaguest memories of one of them and no memory of them telling gay jokes or making me angry or upset, though I do remember the day itself. I’m glad I had the wherewithal to be graceful in my response; that hasn’t always been the case in my teaching career. I’ve lost my temper a few times, never to any good. I wish, too, that I had been able to be more honest and open with them (that would come a few years later, when I came out to the whole school, something I documented in an essay that appeared in One Teacher in Ten: Gay and Lesbian Educators Tell Their Stories). I wish that on the long 20-mile walk I might have been able to talk with them about my own experiences as a lesbian, as a gay teacher, what it meant to hear them — students I liked very much — telling gay jokes, though if I had, I might not have kept my humor and grace. But I, too, was young and fearful. Now, as an older, more experienced teacher, being open in the classroom is less about me and much more about my students, how I can help them in their struggles — a story I have chronicled in another essay, appearing in the new anthology — a 20th anniversary edition of the first one — One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium: LGBT Educators Speak Out About What’s Gotten Better…and What Hasn’t.
The lessons are several: what we say to our students matters. It sticks with them. Kindness goes a long way. Helping kids find their way is tricky business, and sometimes we have the dumb luck to do it well even though we might not realize the good we have done for years. (We usually know immediately when we harm, though — and that requires an instant apology.)
Thank you, S, for your graceful reminder to me after all these years, of what matters most.