4 min

Hey teacher!

Are you a lesbo, or am I?

PLAYING GAMES. Liz Singer's students suspect something's not right. Credit: Joshua Meles

While I’m gathering myself together trying to focus on which of my grade 12 classes I am in and what we are supposed to be doing, Candy struts into class late, walks up to my desk, leans in slyly and says in her loud, clear voice, “We had a supply teacher today and he is gay.” Her volume increases on this last word.

I look directly into her eyes and say, “Great.” This interaction catches the attention of the class. Candy persists. “He is gay. Do you know him?” I chuckle and simile mischievously. “No, I don’t know him. I don’t know everyone.”

She blurts back with twinkling eyes. “Too bad. You should meet him, because you know, he’s gay.”

Her peers ask questions, wanting to know the source of her information. I rein things in with my favourite infantile chant, “Okay, me, me, me, just me.”

They turn my way, still curious about my reaction. I am intrigued by what has happened, too.

At first I wonder if Candy’s behaviour is merely homophobic. But then I realize it is more complicated.

I am not officially out at school but students look at me and think “dyke” as much as they think “strange” because I do not blend. My hair is too weird and messy, my clothes are too ’60s-dude, my ways too gruff.

But strange is exactly how many teenagers feel, whether or not sexual orientation is an issue for them. So they sometimes test me by directly attacking or trying to play with issues that pertain to my queerness.

Just as students can use homophobia to try and get to me, they can also be so protective of me and defend me because of the vulnerability and otherness they feel I embody as a queer.

In eight years as a teacher, not one student in or past the secondary level has asked me if I am a lesbo. This in itself is unusual because I have had colleagues who are not easily identifiable as queers who get asked regularly about their sexuality. This makes me think that the kids who can find a place in themselves for the fact that I am queer assume it to be true. Those not yet able to do so leave this factor unquestioned.

Whatever they say to me, I am used to reading beyond their words because as a dyke, I have learned to read eyes, walks and stances. I can read homophobia veiled in pro-homo rants and openess beneath homophobic trash talk. It is all the possibilities of these provocations that make up the strenuous dance of being a queer high school teacher.

Candy, for example, is a teen and lives alone with her one-year-old baby. She is interested in me and what makes me different. As she taunts me, she feels my alienation. Candy wants me to know that she knows me as a dyke and the vulnerability that I feel, just as I know the vulnerability she experiences.

Each teacher has a different repertoire of dance moves when relating to teenagers’ struggle for self. One semester I was given a group of grade nine students to teach in a special class; all the kids were failing English. Jay showed up at my desk one day, ranting about how he hated queers. He went on, in rapid speed, telling me how someone had a rainbow flag up near his house and he was going to throw a brick through the window. He spoke in a tone that dared me to defy him.

I looked at him in shock. Though Jay was emotionally erratic, I felt his outburst was not about some universal hatred of queers.

“Are you mad at me, Jay?” I said spontaneously. “Did I hurt your feelings in some way? You could tell me so we can talk about what’s going on.”

He stared at me and sat down.

Later on in class, Jay blurted out in rage that some teacher had told him that I was talking about him. I realized, rightly or wrongly, he felt betrayed. I had been tested, but, luckily, I didn’t get pulled in. We both were able to come away from the experience less hurt and more aware.

But sometimes these homo tests end up with me getting wound up in what’s unfolding.

“Ms, Ms, Ms,” Darrell insists even though I am in the middle of a sentence. He has been totally distracted since we started class. Darrell is a tall kid, who never takes off his jacket.

“Ms, tell Alex to stop winking and flirting with me. It’s really bothering me. The guy can’t take his eyes off me,” he says with relish.

“Yeh, right. He’s the one,” Alex says very seriously. “He keeps turning around. I think he is in love with me, Ms.”

I roll my eyes and burst out laughing and the rest of the class joins in. This interaction repeats itself over the next few weeks. During class, when everyone is suppose to be working on their projects, the two young men have raucous arguments about who really wants who. Other members of the class get in on the contest. Cortez says he saw Alex wink at Darrell first. Nashna and Helena suspect they both want each other. Darrell pretends he is hostile. Alex acts naive and indignant.

Alex and Darrell are playing something out about themselves in the confines of my classroom. Their curiosity and intrigue about each other seemed okay for them to express.

It is all the possibilities of these provocations around strangeness that make up the dance of a queer high school teacher. These telling moments are the ever changing rhyme and sway of where I walk as a high school teacher. It is a place where I have found so much of myself and I know that my students have found more of themselves, too.

And if anyone knows that gay teacher that Candy met that day, tell him I said hello.

Names and personal details of students have been changed to protect their identities. Liz Singer is making short movies and writing some stuff.