July 11, 2011

Letter From The Teacher #9: Gay History And Literature?

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Mr. and Mrs. Carter
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Gay Used To Be Such A Lovely Word

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Carter:

I appreciated your e-mail today very much, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to respond to it. Let me respond directly to your first question: No, the Anytown School District will not require the teaching of Gay history. In fact, our state legislature has not mandated that or anything like it. I’m suspect you’re thinking of California. On July 5th, the California Legislature passed a bill that mandates teaching the accomplishments of gay and lesbian people in the public schools. At the moment, it’s not known whether Governor Jerry Brown will sign the bill, but if he does not sign or veto it, it will automatically become law. You might want to take these links (here and here) to read about it. I doubt that this sort of thing would ever be mandated in our state.

I also appreciate your willingness to share your concerns about your daughter, Melissa. As you know, she has shared her feelings about her attraction to girls with me. From your e-mail, it seems plain that she has told you about our conversations and their content, and I’m glad to know that and glad that you trust me enough to confide in me. It might surprise you to know that this kind of conversation is not unusual, but it’s not common either. I suspect it has something to do with my being an English teacher, perhaps the association with literature and poetry and that sort of thing. In any case, please know that I will keep your—and Melissa’s—confidence as she sorts out her feelings and tries to be, well, a teenager.

Getting back to the first issue, I’m pleased we won’t be teaching “gay” history. The politicization surrounding all of this is most discouraging. “Gay” used to be such a lovely word, with such pleasant denotations and connotations. Now, it tends to provoke conflict.

I suppose I should make the expected disclaimer. I normally don’t do this sort of thing, but you don’t know me well and cannot judge me on what you don’t know. I’ve been a classically trained musician all of my life, and have also been involved in theater and other forms of art as well. I know this is a bit of stereotyping, but in those pursuits, I knew—and know—a substantial number of gays and lesbians. Some I like, some I like very much and others I don’t much care for. That is not because of their sexual orientation, but because I don’t consider them to be very good people, for I judge people on their character and the way they treat others, not sexual orientation, race or any other characteristic.

When Jorge comes into my classroom, I don’t see Jorge the Mexican; I see Jorge, the hard-working, serious student. When Ekaterina comes into my classroom, I don’t see Ekaterina, the Ukranian; I see Ekaterina who loves to sing. I see Ekaterina, the girl with the bright smile who always has a kind word for everyone. When Melissa comes into my classroom, I don’t see Melissa who thinks she might be a lesbian; I see Melissa, the sensitive, bright girl who is working harder than most kids her age to figure out who she is and what she wants. I see a girl for whom I will always make time when she needs it.

It’s interesting: some kids tell me they are gay to see if I’ll be shocked, to see if it will change the way I treat them. I’m not, and it doesn’t. Some carefully hint at it, hoping I’ll bring it up. Others are more frank and open. They want a non-judgmental adult with whom to talk. I treat them all with kindness and honesty. I’m not their spiritual advisor—I leave that to their parents—but I do point out the difficulties inherent in their choices and behavior, just as I point out the difficulties of a great many choices and behaviors teenagers consider and make. Some kids ultimately decide that they really aren’t gay or lesbian, others decide that they are. It’s a good thing that we tend to end up very different people in many ways from who we were in high school, isn’t it?

The fact that we won’t be teaching “gay” history in our school is a good thing for several reasons. I must admit to being uncomfortable with the teaching of “black” history or literature or “women’s” history or literature, or “Hispanic” history or literature, or you name the adjective. I’ve always believed that if a person’s accomplishments are truly significant, if their writing is truly valuable, it should stand on its own merit regardless of their race, gender or sexual orientation.

For instance, when we hear someone say they are a black teacher, there are connotations that suggest that person is far more interested in the political and social implications of being black than in teaching. Being a teacher who happens to be black has completely different implications. The same is true for attaching “gay” or “lesbian” to a profession or academic discipline. The connotation implies an emphasis on the sexual orientation and related political activism of the people involved rather than their abilities and accomplishments. It’s as though their sexual orientation is the cause, or at least an indispensable contributing factor to whatever accomplishments they made. No doubt some would say that being gay or lesbian made their accomplishments all the more remarkable because of whatever prejudice or disfavor they may have suffered.

I know that some people would claim that being gay is, in fact, their identity; it is who and what they are. And I know that some gay or lesbian people have experienced prejudice and unthinking cruelty. That is, of course, deplorable and wrong, but that’s not the point.

Let’s suppose that I have a significant interest in, say, bondage and discipline. If surveys and social scientists can be believed, that’s a reasonably common interest across a great many social, economic, and racial strata. I believe that my interest in and practice of B&D defines me, it speaks to who I fundamentally am, and I practice it with my willing and similarly interested spouse on a regular basis. In fact, it so interests us that we band together with others who view it similarly, and lo and behold, we get the California Legislature to pass a bill mandating the teaching of B&D history in the public schools. Sound like a good idea? Do you suppose that might raise some controversy—anywhere else but California, I mean.

It would, of course, not be a good idea. But most importantly, it would be an unprofessional—in terms of the practice of competent educators--idea. The point is not someone’s sexual orientation or interests, but their accomplishments, their contribution to literature, music, mathematics, science or any other discipline. If we’re going to make good choices about how to use our limited time with kids, we have to make it by considering professional, not incidental criteria.

I also have a degree in music. If I’m teaching the music of Tchaikovsky, inevitably one of my brighter students, having read or heard something about him, will ask if he was gay. I would reply that there is some evidence to suggest that he was, and immediately direct them back to Tchaikovsky’s methods of orchestral scoring. If they persist in trying to find some great significance in his sexual orientation, I’ll ask them if there is such a thing as a gay chord? A Lesbian Picardy third? A particularly gay way to write lyrics? Lesbian scoring for the trombone? They get the point, which is that in virtually every legitimate academic pursuit, whether the person being studied is gay or lesbian is beside the point. Notice that I did not say that it is never a legitimate point.

Another compelling reason to avoid such things is that once you allow the establishment of a separate curriculum for any interest group, you open the flood- gates to all. After all, when any other interest group demands the study of their history or their literature, how do you justify turning them down? Do you claim that a gay curriculum is somehow different, even special? And if you do that, what of the claim that gays aren’t asking for special treatment, only equal treatment? If their claim on curricula is not special, is not compelling and of great, overriding importance, why should it—and not the claims of others--be granted?

Literature, however, is a bit more interesting. There is a growing body of what might be called “gay” literature, which is often about the experience, the trials and tribulations and even the joys of being gay and living the gay life style. I know I’m stereotyping again, but please bear with me. A substantial portion of this literature, because of the choices of the writers, their language, and their descriptions of sexual acts and relationships, is plainly inappropriate for the public schools. Much else is simply a poor choice. In fact, I know of no literature in this genre I would willingly teach.

Why not? Am I anti-gay? You know the answer to that, and so does Melissa. The issues are simply time and value. I have so little time to teach literature to the kids, so I must teach literature that is of unquestionably high value, literature that has stood the test of time—often of centuries and even millennia—and literature that reaches the highest levels of what human beings can hope to accomplish as writers. There are a great many essays, short stories and books that are well written, interesting, even delightful, some of them written by self-identified gays and lesbians. There are millions of them, but very few truly great works, works that provide unparalleled insight into human nature, works that provide the opportunity for anyone who reads and understands them (that’s where I come in) to be a better, more intelligent and capable person for having the experience. That’s my mandate: finding and teaching that kind of literature. That’s why you hired me. That’s what you pay me to do.

Some would of course observe that there have been great works of art done by gay people. I agree, however again we have the important distinction of brilliant works of art done by people who happened to be gay rather than gay works of art. There is a difference, certainly to gays.

If my kids want to read the other, less meaningful works—notice that I did not say meaningless or valueless--good for them. I’m all about encouraging kids to read, and I often suggest works not in our curriculum for our kids based on their interests and other criteria. If a student wants to read about any discipline from a gay, lesbian, black, Hispanic or any other perspective, such literature is readily available and no one—perhaps apart from their parents—is stopping them. That knowledge helps me to rest easily in the professional choices I make. After all, if I don’t teach “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” or “The Maltese Falcon,” or “A Christmas Carol,” most of my students will never experience the wonders of those works, and I have so little time.

By the way, some critics want to ban “Huckleberry Finn” because Jim, Huck’s friend the runaway slave, calls Huck “Honey.” They think that indicates a gay relationship. I bring up this—and other would-be censor’s ideas—whenever we study the work. The kids understand that not only is the book devoid of gay sexuality, there is no sexuality of any kind. It comes as something as a revelation to them that literature can be truly entertaining even without sex! They learn that about movies in my class too. They even learn that art can be fulfilling without explosions, gratuitous violence and car chases or exploding, gratuitously violent car chases. Image that.

So I won’t be teaching gay or lesbian literature or history. I will, with your permission, be glad to listen to Melissa, and to help her make intelligent choices, choices that will tend to make it easier for her to focus on her studies and on growing up. She’s a great girl. She deserves the best, most meaningful and professional curriculum I can provide.

As always, please let me know if I can help in any way, and thanks again for your trust.


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at July 11, 2011 11:25 PM

Brilliant. Simply brilliant.

Posted by: greg at July 13, 2011 04:22 PM