September 13, 2012

Life-changing

I just finished my second summer teaching for the non-profit organization Student U in Durham (http://studentudurham.org/). At the end of each summer, each teacher gives a Presentation of Learning to the other faculty and administrators. Here’s what I learned.
NOTE: Dan is Dan Kimberg, founder of Student U (Duke class of ’07) “Best Part of Me” is a Student U 6th grade English assignment Global Connect is the Student U equivalent of social studies Instead of homerooms, Student U has “families”“Family,” “identity,” “life-changing.”

I’ve heard those words thrown around a lot this week. I don’t use those words to describe Student U. But here’s something else I’d use them for. When Dan tells the story of Student U, he often tells a love story in parallel about his wife. I’d like to do something similar with my presentation. This is a love story about a person and a place. I hope it has a happy ending.

On April 22nd of last year I attended my first ever Student U event, the summer faculty dinner. That was the same week I admitted to myself and my inseparable best friend of two years that I loved her. Of course, she knew that already. I think I’d been telling her I loved her since the middle of freshman year – in an oh-my-god-you-brought-me-take-out-LoYo, I-love-you– kind of way. That week I told her something different, something deeper and more scary. That I loved her, in fact was in love with her, exactly as much as wouldn’t freak her out. Turns out she wasn’t freaked out at all, just kind of exasperated that it had taken me so long to own up to – so much so that she scrawled FINALLY in her journal in capital letters with several underlines.
That week I started keeping the biggest secret I have ever kept and probably ever will keep. And I was bad at it. It ate me up. I watched my sister, who I’m very close to, start to think I didn’t like her anymore. What other reason could I have for not inviting her to dinner out with my “best friend?” Why did we always hang out without her? I watched my mother get mad as I lied to her face about something she already knew and had been hinting at, but I just wouldn’t claim. Eventually I caved to my family.

I kept my secret more completely at Student U. I couldn’t handle the prospect of an imbalance in which my entire extended network of work friends knew before her immediate family did. That summer I should have been a 6th grader at Student U rather than a teacher. What I needed was a caring mentor like Imani walking me through questions of identity in Global Connect. A patient English teacher like Alex helping me understand that sometimes the Best Part of Me can feel like the worst. The extent of my coming out at Student U that first summer was hesitantly flashing a wallet photo at one teacher on his way out to the mini-bus (because I ‘thought he might understand’) and tearfully confessing to Ms. Caroline during eval week at the very end of the summer (which was a little ironic, since she always seemed to be the one in tears).

Over the course of the following year at Duke more and more people were entrusted with my –our– secret, and as it turned out most of them were already in on it. What had been so confusing to me had been pretty damn obvious to them. As time went on I got more comfortable in my own, new skin, even if I didn’t quite know which label to slap on it. Maybe I was a lesbian, maybe I was bisexual, maybe I was straight with this one crazy exception. All I knew for sure was that I was in love.

Just as I started to come to terms with that part of my identity, my state legislature started to outline, in no uncertain terms, a very public, and possibly permanent rejection of it. I don’t cry very often. It’s hard to make me cry. But when Amendment One passed on May 8th of this year, I cried – I didn’t think I would, but I did. How humiliating, to think you loved me back. Oh, North Carolina, how I have always defended your charms and endearing qualities. How you were only part of the South in the good senses and never the bad. How wrong I was.

I have always been a homebody, making intentional decisions to stay in one spot to watch it grow and change. My friends and family members who’ve run off to out-of-state colleges or raved about study abroad – I’ve always argued with them about the value of staying put, of falling in love with one place. They sampled many different dishes, while I held on to my one onion that is Duke and Durham and North Carolina, hoping to keep peeling and peeling, until I knew it through and through. For 20 years, I peeled back layer after layer only to find you were rotten in the middle, North Carolina, that you made me sick.

At the end of last summer I came away with the conviction that I could devote my professional life not only to teaching, but to teaching here. In Durham, in North Carolina. But for all my roots here, all my layered memories, I have found I cannot stay. Not in a hometown, in a homestate that thinks it is vitally important to declare in its founding document that my love is second-class, my commitment false, and my life toxic to those around me. Many anti- Amendment One campaigns threatened that passing this kind of legislation would drive away valuable LGBT-friendly employers and employees who could help boost our state’s economy and institutions. I want to help make that threat a reality. I will be that homegrown talent that takes an NC education and leaves for greener pastures. I want my departure to be a consequence of Amendment One. This was the background current running through my head all summer and it made me angry and distant more often than I would have liked. Angry to reflect on the way my students ridicule gay people while unknowingly talking to one. Angry to remember the fall tutoring session in which a student explained to me (an atheist – or, on a good day, agnostic) that gay people were going to hell and this should be sufficient justification for me to allow her to continue mocking the ‘fruity’ waiter she’d had at TGI Friday’s. When I countered by citing the recent string of LGBT teen suicides, she simply asked why they didn’t just stop being that way then, if they were only going to get bullied and kill themselves.

This anger led me to be distant. I admired Rosemary, Imani, Amanda, and others for hitting these issues head on with their students. But did I use marriage equality as my sample essay topic in English? Of course not. Did I have real heart-to-heart conversations about “that’s so gay?” No. Because I could feel my blood start to boil and flush my face red when students asked if they could say “homo” instead.

But I became distant in a much more general way as well. With the exception of one boy, I don’t know this group of students in the same way I knew last year’s. And I wonder if that’s because I felt the futility of forging yet another connection with a place inside of a place where I am no longer welcome. Occasionally I was struck with the irony of creating a Student U “family” within a state that believes I am pathologically incapable of raising a real one. I didn’t want to fall in love with this place any more, give any more of my self to it. It would just make it that much harder to leave against my will.

I hope someday – 10, 20, 50 years from now – I can come home again. I’ll be waiting.

-Liza, Trinity ‘13

2 comments:

  1. Good for you for being freaking angry. Because when I think about Amendment 1, or hear people throwing “fag”, “gay”, “homo” around I get angry, yes, but that anger is accompanied by a sense of shame, unsureness, insecurity that is almost worse than the hatred being spewed in the first place.

    The same distance you talk about, it’s a part of my life, but in such a different way. I’m in no way out… the people I spend hours with every single day don’t have any idea how I think about myself and who I am or who I love. Recently, I’ve pushed myself even further back into the closet, still angry about the hatred around me but overwhelmingly afraid of reacting to it. I used to at least try to start a conversation or make people think about saying things like “that’s so gay”. When Amendment 1 was on the table, I tried to explain to my more conservative, out-of-state friends why I was so adamantly opposed to it, and why they should register to vote against. Now, I’m hesitant to speak up in even the smallest ways. My blood is boiling and my face is flushing, but the anger is only part of the cause. Behind it, and just as frustrating, is my own fear and shame at the idea that I am a part of the thing that they hate, and that they might find that out if I were to say something.

    I’m from Durham too, I’ve lived here my whole life and I love this place. It makes me angry that I don’t DO anything about the hatred, I don’t engage the community, because I am too afraid of the consequences for myself. You say you’ll leave NC, taking talent away from the state. I probably will too, but I’ll be leaving for more selfish reasons, running from my own shame. I’ll probably always wish in some ways that I could stay here, overcome myself and engage people who may or may not accept me the way I am. Maybe I will, I’ve got time, who knows. But anyways, L, thank you for your story, thank you for being you. I hope in time you can come home to a place that loves you as much as you love it.

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  2. Welcome to the family Liza and Anonymous. More than anything else, I want to say to both of you that you are right to feel angry but please, please, please let go of the shame and self-silencing. The days when LGBTQ people need to feel ashamed and be silenced are past. While this ridiculous amendment may have passed, it is those who supported it who should feel ashamed--ashamed of not recognizing the full humanity and rights of all NC citizens, of violating the founding principles of both our constitution and a gospel that proclaims all god's children are made in the image of god.

    That aside--I hope you'll do a couple of things: first--love your loves proudly and fiercely; second--attend the upcoming gay pride march in Durham; I guarantee you'll feel empowered and at home among all the out and proud people and our supporters; third--read up on LGBTQ history--read about Stonewall, read Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich, read about Harvey Milk, read about the courageous people who led the AIDS movement in the 80s and 90s. Read especially about local & regional gay leaders: Minnie Bruce Pratt, Mab Segrest, and Dorothy Allison (her papers are archived at Duke). Read about allies like Pauli Murray. You are part of a long history of struggle and resistance--these people, and many, many others will help you feel connected. But I say to you: Welcome. Kelly

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