Saturday, June 14, 2008

This is not what bravery looks like.

A teacher colleague (and friend) wrote me today about what he called my “courage” for “standing up, being visible, saying the truth, taking risks, being a leader, teaching teachers and policy makers, changing the climate …”

I have to say: This is not what bravery looks like. I appreciate the compliment from the bottom of my heart, but this is not bravery. Robert Anthony once said, “Courage is simply the willingness to be afraid and act anyway." I have rarely been afraid. Because, unlike teachers, I flit into schools as a guest speaker, and the institution has less power over me. And because I happen to work for a city and county and public health department that have always had my back. The voters in this place and the honorable people they elect passed ordinances prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation decades ago. And my supervisors and their supervisors have always stood up for the need to protect the health and well-being of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, gender variant and transgender youth and families of King County.

Courage would be working to end homophobia and racism under threat of losing my job or, God forbid, my spouse and children. I have never faced those threats. Teachers all over the country do that every day.

Courage would be working to end homophobia and racism even as people were repeatedly stealing your identity and cyberharassing you … as happened to this teacher friend twice this year. Students set up false web pages purporting to be him and containing lies about him. Twice. Courage is remaining in the profession and continuing to teach social justice, even as the student "contributors" to those fake sites go unpunsihed.

Courage would be working to end homophobia and racism even as graffiti about you continues to shout from the walls of the restrooms, and the school refuses for weeks to paint over it. That’s what my colleague Kyle did this year, his senior year in high school. He, too, was cyberbullied and received death threats to his face and online. Courage is to keep going to school every day and even continuing to insist that the school stand up for your friends in the gay-straight alliance, knowing that you will graduate and be gone.

Courage would be having a teacher keep mocking the way you speak, as has been happening to my grandson this year in high school, and still going to class and trying to pass! He tells me he hears the N-word all the time at school and teachers don’t intervene. Being an African-American kid in a mostly Caucasian school for the first time in his life is taking a toll on him this year. And yet, he goes back every day. That’s courage.

I think that those of us who don’t work in schools sometimes forget just how fragile the safety of teachers and students really is. Or we think it must be better in 2008. Or we imagine that we would have courage like that of Martin Luther King and be willing to die and leave our spouse a widow and single parent for our principles.

It’s easy to be glib when you lose perspective like that. Earlier this year, I spoke at the Northwest premiere of the film It’s STILL Elementary. I said, almost with disdain, that ten years ago, when the filmmakers were scouring the country looking for teachers and principals willing to be filmed addressing gay issues in schools … I said that nobody in Washington State was brave enough, even if they were addressing sexual diversity, to allow the camera into the classroom. We hunted and couldn’t find a single school. I said it as if it were an indictment, a description of cowardice. I’m ashamed of myself. I apologize.

“Cowardice” is not even remotely a description of a teacher who intervenes in anti-gay or anti-racist bullying and who finds ways to dispel students’ stereotypes and replace them with accurate portrayals of sexually and racially diverse people … and who decides not to risk being allowed to continue that life-saving work by going on camera. I apologize for the implied disrespect.

I promise to keep cognizant of just how scary life is – still in 2008 -- for so many school employees and students.

-- by Beth Reis

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