It Gets Better.

[Standing editorial note: I know there is a danger to writing about 40-year-old memories. I do my best to tell the truth. I am a fan of Dave Eggers, who classified “What is the What” as fiction rather than biography because the memory of a refugee is so un-confirmable.  So classify this however you will, fact or fiction, but I will claim it as the way I remember it, as best as I can tell.)

Part of why I’m writing this blog, is to put down the story of how I got where I am. I’m so thrilled that for some reason, people in their teens and 20s want to listen to my stories. And as I move toward Act II, toward “senior citizen” years that give me a chance to hit the reset button, I have more friends my age asking me how they can make a difference.

The answer: You’ll have little incidents happen that seem like nothing, but are really God telling you what to do. Follow those little things.

I remembered a very key moment in high school that put me on this path.  It was a moment of pain that a classy teacher turned around into a vital teaching moment.

Ouch.

Setting the scene: 10th grade, a high school in Wayne County, Michigan. I had stayed after school for Spanish Club.  In 1970s Michigan, there weren’t many of us taking Spanish. I think my 9th grade class barely had the minimum complement of students to warrant a class. My teacher also taught drama part-time. We were a close-knit bunch of futurists who didn’t really know at the time how useful Spanish would be.

I’ll call my teacher simply Señor T. He was from Southern California originally, of Mexican heritage, and his first love was acting.

He was also probably the first gay person I knew. He never shared that with us in class or at any other time. We heard it, unfortunately, in an unkind and spiteful comment from another teacher.

We were sitting in Spanish club after school, Señor T. was in the hallway, and another teacher passed by the door. I have no idea what precipitated the comment, but suddenly we heard another male teacher saying in a very loud voice something about “That G**D**** f****t drama teacher.” (Hint, the second expletive means a homosexual. I think you might get the first one without a hint.)

What do you do with something like that?

We looked at each other in quiet shock. We were still young enough to think teachers were demi-gods. and this didn’t fit our paradigm. But even in our young minds, this wasn’t right.

Señor T. came into the room. He must have seen our stricken faces. After a moment he spoke.

“What you experienced here today — what you just heard– is not the real world,” he said slowly. “The real world is a wonderful place. It’s full of amazing people and amazing ideas. I hope you’ll experience it someday.” And then we moved on to learning about life in Guatemala, from a recent trip he’d led with some other students.

From a man I know others didn’t consider to be a great teacher –who talked too much about himself in class — I learned so much. What he taught us about his supposedly worthless life stories was about that other world, the one where knowing Spanish and loving art and culture, would open doors we couldn’t yet fathom.

Take Homes

And he knew about communication as power. With a few simple sentences he eviscerated a nasty bigot. He also moonlighted as an ESL teacher, working with recent immigrants. He gave power to those who had none, in night school courses in neighborhoods we thought unsafe for visiting. He gave us a vision for how we might also help others some day, to become literate, full-voiced, bilingual participants in our community.

He gave me my first lessons in culture stress. He experienced it as a Latino trying to get a degree at at university when there weren’t many people who looked like him going to college. He experienced it taking students to Central America, and told us how some very central tenants of our identity as Americans and even our faith would be challenged by experiences with the church in Central America.

As mentioned, he never talked about his sexual orientation. I found his obituary on Google and it mentions a “longtime companion” type of relationship. He described a gentleman in passing references as “his roommate.”   I have given my teacher a pseudonym and have not mentioned specific details I knew about his life, because evidently his family wanted to use the euphemisms. I lovingly respect their choice.

What I do now, as a result

I have sometimes fantasized about meeting Señor T. and now know it’ll have to be in heaven, to let him know what joy his teaching has brought me.

But that lesson of turning the ugliness of the world, into a positive, is something I always try to do with young people how come to me distraught and downcast about the state of the world. “It will be better,” I say. This may be the biggest thing we can do, as women (and men) who have been down the road a piece. We MUST communicate hope to the next generation.

And I know that storytelling is an important way to do it. Specific stories stick. I’m not sure how I arrived at the point of realizing storytelling has value, except to say, it was a huge part of my upbringing (but that’s another blog post). My stories, your stories, have value.

Convergence

I did not graduate from the school where I met Señor T., but when I arrived at University of Michigan, several of my former classmates joined me in upper-level Spanish courses.  Several of us converged in the prerequisites for the Spanish teaching certificate. Which is a pretty good measure of a high school teacher’s effectiveness, doncha think?

Despite only having 3 years (on paper) of Spanish (I was put back a year when I changed school systems), I tested at 4th-year level at Michigan and got a pass into upper-level Spanish lit courses. (Props here to Señoras Ward and Lyons for top-flight teaching in Dearborn, as icing on the cake!) My very first class as a first year student, was a junior-level Spanish lit course, taught by an Argentinian leftist, on Octavio Paz’s classic essay “The Labyrinth of Solitude.” Which included a lengthy discussion of several key phrases in Spanish that will get this post blocked by your browser, including a discourse on the four-letter word that begins with “F” and a phrase called the “Madonna/woman who sells herself” complex. Yep, that was 8 a.m. on my first day as a first-year student.

Quite the intellectual blast to a suburban whitest-of-white girl. I didn’t even know what a leftist was. I could barely find Argentina on a map.

Due to Sr. T, I did not quit right there.  Instead I said, “Well, Hello, real world.” I may not have liked it much but I was ready for the challenge. Which set me up for a lifetime of first-days where I was a fish out of water.

 

 

 

 

 

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