- Every Violent August: Postcards from the Trenches of High School
The fresh start promised by freshman year of high school does not materialize. The size of the secret I am keeping turns me into an intimidating, unlikable person. My Honors Lit teacher has a long Southern drawl and a limp wrist, spares no one from the witty barbs that he lobs first at the ignorant and then at the faux intellectual. He never lets up on me; it is his gesture of affection.
I admire him immensely for the way he takes over a room. He never says so, but I know he is gay. My queer students are squirrelly, frightened of their own shadows. The kindest thing I do is avert my eyes and ignore them, waiting, trying not to scare them away. They approach when they are ready, latching onto me like barnacles. It is important not to show favoritism toward them, to let them just stick themselves onto my behemoth armor and use it as their own, surreptitiously garnering whatever nourishment they can until they are able to talk about themselves with some smallish measure of honesty. [End Page 170]
Dieter is so viciously intelligent that you can’t even look her in the eye at close range. She is Medusa, always giving shit and never for an instant taking it. If Dieter wants to spend time with you, every kid at school will know you are a genius and an asshole. And gay. I take her Honors Lit class junior year and then an independent study senior year. I have her all to myself two hours a week. It isn’t sexy. She raises me right. We read Brecht and Beckett. I am a rebellious teenage jerk paddling through the deep end, equipping myself with many words. All the kids whisper that I must be a lesbo, but it seems like a price worth paying for this education.
Her existence saves my own. By the end of senior year, I have one foot out of the closet and both hands holding tight to the idea of becoming a teacher. When I first think up the idea for editing This Assignment is So Gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching,1 it is out of a profound sense of obligation toward her for bravely going it alone all these many years in the face of what is no doubt an endless witch hunt. At every teaching job I’ve held, I always have to find that one other colleague with whom I can be honest and have real discussion. The strength to hold your ground comes from having someone at your shoulder to hold it with you, however quietly.
I am out of the closet at a private college where I spend $23,000 on tuition to give them the privilege of strongly disapproving of me. My parents are worried it’s not just a phase, the gay thing. My queer students make poor choices because they’re young or have ultimatums thrust upon them in ways that put real, responsible decision making beyond their own power. As often as I can, I remember to be merciful. Life won’t hand you infinite do-overs, but occasionally, the right second or third chance at just the optimal moment locks in a sense of good will in a kid that they can pay forward forever and never forget.
The state school has a PRIDE group populated by overdramatic people who wear cargo shorts and don’t watch the news, but at least I am not the only queer in a fifty-mile radius anymore. The president of the club is an ex-gay ministry [End Page 171] survivor; she has a cult church tattoo on her shoulder that she won’t discuss with anyone. My first job is typist for a graying but still flamboyant graduate student. He has some kind of shrine to Marlene Dietrich. When I tell him I don’t know who that is, he pays me two extra hours to sit in his living room and watch Shanghai Express.
By my junior year, I enroll in...