A Teacher’s Lesson
By Lissa Brown
Intended as a warning to secondary teaching majors to avoid career-crippling litigation, a college professor in an instructional methods course said, “Never touch a student.” I read with horror the required articles in National Education Association journals and other publications about teachers who had faced false allegations of improper physical contact with students and lost their jobs.
As a college senior flushed with the success of my recent student teaching experience and eager to begin my teaching career, I found it disturbing to think all my hard work could be for naught if a vindictive student pinned a target on my back. “All it takes is an accusation,” my professor warned. When it comes to this issue, he assured us, facts were completely irrelevant.
I adhered steadfastly to the “don’t touch” rule through most of my years as a high school history teacher. I prayed my comforting touch to a girl having an epileptic seizure in my classroom would be overlooked, and that my amateur, hands-on ministrations to a child who’d caught her hand in a bicycle chain in the parking lot would not mark the end of my teaching career.
Ever mindful of the consequences of being branded a child molester by suspicious students or parents, I followed the advice I received as a college senior. But no one ever prepared me for the insidious behavior of parents who might be suspicious of my friendship with another female teacher or warned me that it could affect my teaching.
To set the record straight, I taught in two public school systems in New Jersey over a period of seventeen plus years. During that time I did not identify as a lesbian. I dated men and for most of that time denied the possibility that I might be sexually attracted to women. I participated in many consciousness-raising activities through NOW and other organizations and somehow managed to steer clear of confronting my own orientation issues. Fear of seeing my teaching career come to a screeching halt probably contributed to that situation.
In September of 1969, a mere three months after the Stonewall riots in nearby New York City had raised everyone’s awareness of gays and lesbians, I began a new teaching job. A woman in my department had agreed to mentor me, since I was new to the school system. Carol and I had a lot in common. We taught the same subjects, had similar ethnic backgrounds, and loved to travel. We soon began spending time together on weekends and planned trips to Europe, Asia and the Middle East during our spring and summer breaks. We both had strong advocacy interests and advanced to fill leadership positions in the teacher’s union.
Hoping to maintain my interest in teaching, I developed a new course, The American Woman. If not the first, it was among the initial women’s studies courses in American public high schools. I was told it would live or die based on student enrollment and was confident I could interest enough students to elect the course.
At about the same time this new course was offered, the union’s battles with the school board and superintendent rose to a fever pitch. Much was written in the local newspapers about union leaders, including me, and systematic rumors were floated about our private lives. One persistent rumor linked Carol and me in a lesbian relationship. While there was absolutely no truth to the rumor, it continued and spread through and beyond the school district.
Discussions in my classroom were notable for the complete absence of any topic that might touch on lesbianism. Naturally, students in this course were curious about some of the women we studied. In particular, some questioned why so many of the women were unmarried. When students asked questions about hints of lesbianism in literature they were reading, I dodged them. I was uncomfortable doing that, something I’d never had to do before in my classroom. My own fears about being charged with proselytizing a lesbian lifestyle led me to rob my students of a potentially rich discussion.
There was no basic textbook in that course. I’d deliberately avoided using one because I wanted students to become familiar with the ballooning body of literature about women who had changed our history. I divided the course into two sections; the first was a review of notable women in our history and their accomplishments.
The second part of the course covered a variety of topics that emphasized a sociological approach. We examined the evolving roles of women as portrayed in mass media, advertising and the workforce, and tackled some controversial issues such as abortion and discrimination based on gender.
I recall an instance when a student questioned something she read about a prominent woman who became president of one of the early women’s colleges. The article she read used the expression a “Boston marriage” to describe her domestic arrangement with another woman. She wanted to know what that meant. I answered very carefully, avoiding the term “lesbian.” I knew I conveyed the point when another student chimed in saying something like, “Oh, you mean they were lesbians?” I remember walking over to my classroom door and shutting it, fearing the consequences if my department head happened to walk by and hear that word. “Some people thought so,” I answered, and did not elaborate.
Teachers love those “teachable moments” that occur from time to time. That was a great one, and I could have used it to explore a variety of issues involving societal attitudes and how they were changing, but I didn’t dare.
There were a few lesbians in my class and I felt I cheated them of their right to know many of the influential women in our history who braved discrimination in order to follow their path. How sad that I wasn’t willing to risk losing my livelihood to provide that.
One day as I was preparing to leave school, one of our guidance counselors stopped me and asked if we could talk. We walked to her office and I sat down. This was not a colleague with whom I had a particularly close relationship, so I was a bit surprised when she pulled her chair out from behind her desk and sat next to me. I soon realized why she’d done that. She was about to deliver bad news.
She explained that she received calls from the parents of two students in my American Woman class, insisting they wanted to take their daughters out of the class. “Why?” I asked. She beat around the bush, trying to avoid telling me what they had really said, but I got the message. Apologetically, she told me the parents alluded to their belief that I lived with Carol and they didn’t want me influencing their daughters. I told her Carol and I had never lived together and urged her to look up our records. We didn’t even live in the same town.
“What did you tell them?” I demanded. I wanted to hear her explanation, suspecting I already knew the answer. She explained that she tried to dissuade them but they were adamant. Since it was an elective course and neither student needed the credits to graduate, she caved to their demands. She declined my offer to speak with the parents and to urge them to consider the students’ opinions. I knew the girls did not want to leave the class. In fact, the next day one of them came to me after school to apologize and told me how sorry she was to have to drop the class. I told her I was sorry too and that I understood that she had to bow to parental pressure.
I’m not sure how much influence these events had on my eventual decision to leave the teaching profession. I always believed I had given my students my best and encouraged them to have open minds. I had a reputation for being forthright. I felt somewhat ashamed to face the fact that when it came to the subject of lesbianism, I took the safe route to preserve my job.
It’s difficult to know how much the denial of my own lesbianism contributed to my behavior in the classroom. Within one year of the experiences described above, I began the journey leading to my own coming out. I struggled as most people do who wait until they are nearly forty years old to face their feelings. By that time I was safely employed in the private sector in a new career. Far from the schoolhouse door, I shed the baggage of self-denial and recognized myself for who I am, a lesbian.
One opportunity to atone for the dishonesty in the classroom came unexpectedly when I ran into a former student. Terri was a bright student whom I taught in three different grades. We kept in touch after she graduated and she came to the school to visit me from time to time. As I was packing my personal files on my last day of teaching, she helped carry boxes down three flights of steps to my car. We said our goodbyes in the parking lot, promising to remain in touch, and I left behind my role of teacher.
I suspected two things about Terri when she was my student; she was a lesbian, and she had a crush on me. Several months later we got together for dinner and I invited her to join me at a swim club on the weekend. I enjoyed hearing about her success at NYU and then the conversation turned more personal.
“I’ve always trusted you to tell the truth,” she said. “You’re one of few teachers I’ve had whose honesty I’d bet on.”
“Well thanks,” I replied cautiously, suspecting I’d be tested at any moment.
“So, can I ask you a question?”
“Sure, go ahead,” I replied.
Nervously she continued. “So, was there any truth to the rumors about you and Carol?”
I took a deep breath and looked her in the eye. “No, not a word of truth,” I answered, “but I’ve been doing a lot of self-examination and am exploring the possibility that I do prefer women.” She looked relieved.
Now it was my turn. “Why do you ask? Is it merely idle curiosity?”
Her red face provided all the answer I needed but she replied, “No, I guess I wanted to know if we were birds of a feather…” and her voice trailed off.
“I’d say that’s a very real possibility,” I answered.
It seemed a natural follow-up to our conversation; I asked her to accompany me to a women’s bookstore. Old habits die hard and I was intent on doing some reading before plunging into the lesbian world. I asked if she could recommend a couple of good books. Together we browsed the collection and she suggested I purchase a copy of The Coming Out Stories. We laughed at the apparent role reversal inherent in that field trip.
Shortly afterwards, I introduced Terri to my new lover, the woman who has been my partner for twenty-seven years. We went to an off-off-Broadway production of the play Sisters together and I enjoyed the mutual embarrassment as we three neophyte lesbians watched a nude love scene between two nuns.
Through subsequent conversations I realized Terri had regarded me as a role model. I’ve wondered how much easier I could have made her life if I’d been more conscious of my own orientation and been willing to speak of the unspeakable in my classroom. Thirty years later, however, I’m comfortable with the knowledge that she has forgiven my failing and we remain good friends.