“Are you for real?”

12 Jun

In “‘My Teacher Is a Lesbian’ Coming Out at School,” Jody Sokolower writes about deciding not to “teach from the closet,” when, during her first year of teaching seventh grade, her students casually asked an off-topic but common question: “Are you married?” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jody-sokolower/lesbian-teachers_b_1200501.html)

Her initial answer turned out only to be the beginning. “I have been with the  same partner for a very long time, but we can’t get married because  we’re lesbians. My partner’s name is Karen and we have a  daughter. She’s 9,” led to an array of student curiosity, questions and unfiltered reactions:

“Are you for real?”

“How could you have a daughter?”

“How do you know you’re a lesbian?”

“That’s gross.”

Sokolower’s response epitomizes the balance of personal care and professionalism that I hope all students have the opportunity to learn with and from: “Right now we’re working on Africa. But I want to answer your questions. How about this? You think about appropriate questions, and tomorrow we’ll save some time to discuss this. I’ll bring in pictures of my family to show you.”

This is a powerful and useful article about discerning why, how and what to teach about identity, especially when your own personal and professional safety is at stake.

It’s also a great model for any of us who have the opportunity and responsibility to educate students about identity, diversity and equity.

As someone who could answer the students’ question simply with a “Yes,” I am mindful of how else I can respond and what questions I can ask in this moment when I have the opportunity to help students notice the air they’re breathing: the culture they’re part of that prompts such an intimate inquiry so mindlessly. (And I don’t mean “mindless” in a critical sense; I just mean that it’s common for little to no thought goes into asking that question because the expected answers are a foregone conclusion for us.) Why do you ask? What does “married” mean to you? What would it mean to you if I said, “No”?

This is not to say that a simple “Yes” or “No” is a wrong answer. We don’t always have the time for a longer response. Then again, that can be a convenient excuse for sticking to the conventional script. And yet again, we don’t always need to say more. After all, a question is more about the asker than the responder.

When I’m asked (which is often, by both adults and children), “Do you have kids?” and I reply with a simple, unqualified “No,” the conversation often stumbles or stops. Clearly, that was not the right answer. (Now what is the other person supposed to say? They were all prepared to listen to names and ages and ask follow up, age appropriate questions about the children I should have.) What I wonder during their uncomfortable pause is why they asked (conversation filler? assumption based on my appearance or profession?) and whether they think the problem is my nonconformity or the narrowness of the question itself. I also wonder whether they add my response to their repertoire, broadening their tacit sense of normal through experience, or toss it out as an insignificant anomaly. (All of this, of course, often on an unconscious level.)

The question for me is what I want students to learn about me, about themselves, about our society and about simple ways we can include and exclude people without even thinking about what we just did or said. Because it’s not just the question, but our response to the answer that can communicate to someone that we think there’s something wrong with them.

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