November 3, 2008

November 3, 2008



Dear LoMA Family,


At last Monday’s faculty meeting, the staff discussed their thoughts and feelings around identity. In particular, we shared how our racial, gender and sexual orientation identities affect our work as teachers and counselors. Like nearly all New York City schools, LoMA’s faculty is whiter and more female than its student population. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it is something that we need to think about, and talk about honestly and openly.


I never felt whiter than the first day I stood in front of my nearly all-Latino English class at Aviation High School 19 years ago. Given the racism of so many Americans, I worried that my students might see me as racist, or terribly out of touch with their lives. I had started off teaching in an all white, wealthy school on Long Island, and hated it. Even though I had grown up just a mile away from there, I found the students to be spoiled, superficial and dull. I wanted to work with students who had more interesting lives; students that would bring a wealth of varied experiences to the classroom. I wanted students who would teach me as I taught them. Yet when I stood in front of that first class I worried that my experience as white guy growing up in middle class suburbia might make me unfit to teach my mostly immigrant, Latino class. What could I teach them? Why would they listen to me? Fortunately, I discovered that my race and background didn’t matter to my students as much as the fact that I cared for them and could make reading and writing interesting. I tutored them after school and advised a bunch school clubs so I could get to know them better and they could get to know me better. With time, I stopped feeling like the white guy in the room and more like the cool teacher who ran all of the clubs. While I could never lose my racial identity, my identity as a teacher and role model became more visible and vital than my skin color.


Yet as popular a teacher as I became, I still felt insecure because of my hidden identity as a gay man. Part of me argued that it shouldn’t matter because since my sexual identity was my own business; it had no place in the classroom. More convincing, however, was the argument that I would have to face harassment and dishonor if my students knew that I was gay. Then one Valentine’s Day my boyfriend sent a big bouquet of roses to the school. When the students saw them and asked me who they were from, I dodged the question. Feeling embarrassed afterwards, I understood why “pride” is so vital to gay people and decided to come out of the closet.


Telling my students that I was gay, however, was different then letting them see that I was white. Our identities are complex, and sometimes we risk embarrassment or misunderstanding when we reveal aspects of ourselves to others, and some things are not appropriate to reveal to others. I was a popular teacher whose students behaved well. I feared that I would go from being a good, but tough, teacher to being a “gay” teacher. When I came out to my students, however, I was once again pleasantly surprised by their maturity and understanding. They seemed to gain more respect for me and understand me in my individual complexity. They understood that as, important as is to who I am, my sexual orientation is only a part of my identity. My students continued to see me as a demanding, caring teacher who also happened to be gay and white and tall and loud and pushy and….


This Tuesday we will see how well America can understand the complexities of identity. When Obama first announced his candidacy, he was seen by many as the “Black” candidate with the funny name. Over the last two years we have gotten to know him as an inspiring speaker, nuanced thinker and astute policy wonk. Like all of us, only more so, he is a magnificent mosaic of identities.


 Take pride in your multitude of identities,


John Wenk