Last week, a teacher at a Michigan middle school was suspended for three days, two without pay, after agreeing to a student’s request to play Macklemore’s “Same Love” in class when another student complained afterwards about being offended. Macklemore himself expressed his disappointment in the decision, along with every other queer and/or sane person in the world who heard the story. After the backlash and an investigation by the ACLU, the teacher, Susan Johnson, was quickly reinstated by her district, although her infraction of not screening all material shown in class beforehand was kept on the books, in sort of a “guess we shouldn’t look like total douchebags but still won’t admit we were completely wrong in order to preserve our pride” type of move.
My wife and I have been fans of Macklemore for a while now, and can attest that everything he writes is full of shockingly thoughtful and honest sentiments. (For instance, one of my wife’s favorites passionately discusses the consumerism inherent in owning a pair of Nikes. Accordingly, the sincerity of “Same Love” is no accident. For those who by chance haven’t had the pleasure of hearing it, it’s one of the most moving songs about equality to be released this year, and for sure, the gentlest, sweetest hip-hop tribute to gays I’ve ever heard. In other words, its potential to impact youth ranges from significant to extraordinary. I’ve listened to it countless times, yet still fail to not get weepy every time Mary Lambert croons, “My love, my love, my love, she keeps me warm,” in the chorus. And during pretty much every other part.
I responded to this story, then, in a number of ways: my gut-hurt immediate reaction as a queer; my “Wait, over THAT song?” reaction as a Macklemore fan; and lastly and most deeply, as an educator, particularly of middle school students. Everything I know about teaching tells me that Susan Johnson did everything exactly right, and not just in addressing homophobia and bullying. One of the most interesting parts of the story to me was that it wasn’t even Johnson’s idea to play the song; it was a student’s. My education professors constantly stressed creating “student-centric classrooms,” letting kids know that we honor their suggestions and input. Checkmark for Susan there, as well as for that student who was awesome enough to suggest it.
Beyond that, almost every text I’ve read on recent educational theory stresses “critical thinking,” the ability to look at something from a variety of angles. The fact that one student wanted to play this and another disagreed with it seems to present a remarkable opportunity for just such critical discourse. A teacher I work with recently gave me a book called The Global Achievement Gap, written by a researcher who interviewed countless CEOs and business leaders about what they look for in potential employees, and it turns out they want what all the educators at the social justice conferences I’ve attended also want: they want young people who know how to ask good questions. The skills and experience they’ll get on the job. But if they can’t think critically, and if they can’t ask questions, and if they can’t work together? Sorry, the future may not look that bright for you. Yet we still enact strategies in our schools that are the opposite of things: we cram our curriculum with standardized tests, full of “right” and “wrong” answers, and we immediately shut down any mention of “controversial” topics.
If schools were being run the way I believe they should, students should in fact be offended every day. They should be shown videos and presented with topics that make them ask questions. They should disagree. It’s not even a question of swaying children to one way or the other; it’s a fact of showing them that multiple sides exist, increasing their ability to be empathetic global citizens in addition to being more inquisitive, creative people.
Not to mention the fact that if schools acquiesced to every student complaint, they would end in chaos. I had a bunch of students complain to me just last week that they couldn’t do well in math class because the way their teacher stood behind his desk was distracting. Kids complain. A lot. This story, even after the teacher was re-instated, proves to children that it’s okay to bully teachers, and that in fact, it works. The district maintains that the reason behind the suspension was that the teacher didn’t follow protocol in previewing the material, but I see YouTube played in classrooms every single day without previous screening. Teaching is inherently a somewhat spontaneous business; it would be awfully boring (and involve less learning) otherwise. Susan Johnson was suspended for one reason and one reason only: her school was scared.
On top of this, I can tell you for a fact that middle school students think about sex all the time. Last week, apparently, many 7th grade boys I work with learned what tossing somebody’s salad meant, and I had to roll my eyes at giggles about it all week. They are not too young to watch a video that shows two dudes kissing. Seriously.
After all of this, the question in my brain then, of course, becomes: but how can you be enraged over this story when you still aren’t out to your own students?
This Michigan story is sad, but it’s not new or necessarily even surprising. When I was student teaching two years ago, a student teacher in the school district next to ours was kicked out of his position at an elementary school for telling students he was gay when they asked. (In Oregon! I thought we were all hippies here?) It obviously turned into a lawsuit that he eventually won, but it still prompted me and a fellow gay student teacher in my graduate program to have conversations over beer after class–how were we going to handle it? We both wanted to be brave but we also wanted jobs. And while we were beat over the head with courses about “multiculturalism” and “diversity,” none of our professors were ever going to tell us how to handle this. We had to figure it out on our own. While all queers must struggle with coming out in the workplace, teachers are saddled with the extra burden of pushing a gay agenda on vulnerable children by their mere existence. It’s not even a question of, “How will my principal and fellow teachers react?” but, “What will I say to the parents who say I’m not suited to teach their children?” It is scary as hell.
In my current position, I am an “academic advisor” and also a tutor for certain underperforming kids at a local middle school, working within several teachers’ classrooms. I use the fact that I don’t yet have my own classroom as an excuse behind not being out. If I had my OWN classroom, I would plaster it with rainbows, right? But I don’t want want to drag other teachers into the mess of, you know, who I love. I pride myself on the fact that I’m out to the adults in the building, including the teacher I work with most, who happens to be an extremely religious conservative. We respect each other greatly, while knowing that we disagree with each other deeply on many things. We could actually be a great example to the students.
But instead, my soul dies slowly each time I see homophobic behavior between kids (which is every day); every time a kid asks me if I have a boyfriend (also every day), and I answer that I’m married, but nothing more. I’ve become somewhat of an expert at not using pronouns. I give kids a hard time about saying “that’s so gay,” but sometimes I even let that slide, as it happens so often, and you just get tired.
The bottom line: Is it easier to be gay — as both students and teachers — in schools in America today? In some places, yes. I think there are enormous strides happening in some schools. But in other schools, particularly in urban areas, that still lack GSAs, that still lack out teachers, who are still controlled by powerful school boards full of stuck-in-their-ways old farts (no offense to the cool old farts out there) and administrations who will still suspend teachers over amazingly sweet hip-hop songs about gay people: no. It’s not. I watch the students who say “that’s so gay,” who say “no homo” the most, and they fall into such stereotypical categories that break my heart. Those who are least educated will always be the scariest to come out to. So might I feel comfortable coming out in a shiny, suburban school? Or a private one? Sure. But that’s not where I want to work. That’s not where youth need the most help.
In Macklemore’s response to this story, he says: “I wrote the song “Same Love,” not with the expectation that it would cure homophobia and lead to marriage equality across the US (although that’d be awesome). It was written with the hope that it would facilitate dialogue and through those conversations understanding and empathy would emerge. This incident demonstrates how too often we are quick to silence conversations that must be had. Even if people disagree, there is far more potential for progress when people are vocal and honestly expressing their thoughts about gay rights. When we are silent and avoid the issue, fear and hatred have a far greater life span. It’s discouraging that a song about love and civil rights has led to a teacher getting suspended from her job. But that’s where we are at. For those of us who get a pit in our stomach when reading a story like this, it just makes it abundantly clear there is far more work to be done.”
I am one of those with the pit in my stomach, and it feels like an awfully personal pit. A pit that will burrow into my insides until I know that I am actually doing that work that needs to be done, that I believed in so idealistically during my student teaching tenure, when I promised I would never lie to kids. I’ve still never technically lied — I’ve just avoided the truth. Because when I said that Susan Johnson’s school district was scared, the truth is, it’s a fear I understand.
But here’s the thing: our kids are too good for that. They always have been and they always will be. The kid who suggested playing a music video that involves two dudes kissing, in front of all of his peers, who should have been most scared of all, wasn’t. Thank you, dear Michigan middle school boy, for the inspiration, and for being you. Never stop. I have a feeling you will go places.