Last week, I spent several days in the Kootenays, visiting small-town high schools to tell stories.
It is hard to describe the feeling of pulling up in front of an aging institution in Salmo, population 1,133, and bracing myself to enter its halls.
It is morning break, and small gaggles of teenagers are meandering their way back from the Esso, sucking at blue Slurpees and eating ketchup-flavoured chips. They stare, because I am obviously not from here.
I do not know what their teachers have told them about my visit. I do not know how many teachers actually want me in their school, and which ones are my allies.
If I have learned one thing from doing social justice and anti-homophobia work in schools for the last 10 years, it is to never judge who is on my side based on appearances. I have been invited and welcomed by almost-retired Christian librarians and received a chilly handshake from a 29-year-old English teacher wearing a pink dress shirt with a subtly contrasting silk tie and French cologne.
There is no telling, so I just assume everyone means well, just to get myself through the front door without hyperventilating.I am met at the office by the always-harried secretary. She seems about as glad to see me as she does the two kids with torn shirts and nosebleeds that she sits outside the principal’s office to wait, and the teacher who needs the key for the photocopier.
I am ushered into the teacher’s lounge, where I notice someone has written on the whiteboard calendar that there will be a “GLBTQ lecture” in the gymnasium this afternoon.
I wince a little at this. Actually, I am a storyteller who uses stories to generate questions and discussion about bullying and what can be done to foster a safe learning environment for all kids, regardless of their sexual orientation.
I also talk to them about being a working artist and about creative writing in general. Primarily, I am there to entertain them. Who wants to listen to a “lecture” about anything?
But I decide not to split hairs, and I thank the teacher who will be introducing me to the 150 or so kids I will be speaking to.
The bell rings and the principal comes over the intercom and instructs the students to “report to the gymnasium for a presentation.” Not a great start, but a start.
One of the stories I tell is about my cousins and I, and the time we all got roller skates that one summer, and my cousin Christopher who was cursed with gigantic feet and had to wear the dorky old-fashioned kind of roller skates that buckled up, and he ended up wiping out and crapping his pants.
The story is funny and someone poops themselves, so it always goes over with the kids, but the subtext of the story is about bullying and how being different can result in pretty serious abuse and even violence from other kids.
I always let the youth take it from there. Someone invariably puts up a hand and asks me where my cousin Christopher is now, and if things turned out okay for him in the end. They are expecting me to tell them how he has recovered from high school and is now happily married and living with his pretty wife and working as a computer tech or a stockbroker. Instead I tell them the truth.
I tell them that Christopher died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his early 20s, that he never learned to unbelieve what he had been taught to feel about himself by the kids who bullied him mercilessly all through his years in public school.
I tell them the reason I come and tell stories in high schools is so that every single one of them will know that there is someone out there who cares about the boy who throws like a girl, and the tomboy, and the nerds and the fat kids and the shy ones and the girl with the Coke-bottle glasses and the retainer.
We talk about how the bully who will torment these kids is the very same personality type who will bully people who have accents, or belong to a different race or worship a different god.
I tell them that I am there for all of them, that they all have a right to be educated without fear of violence or emotional torment. We talk about how dismantling the social dynamics that encourage bullies now will help build a framework for a more tolerant and diverse society for everyone.
Then we usually talk a bit about my tattoos and why I prefer classic rock to techno, and I go home.
Sometimes it takes days for the emails to arrive, and sometimes it is years before the wispy-wristed clerk at the organic foods market fesses up that he was all alone in Grade 11 way back when, and hearing my story that day changed his life.
Last week, I spoke to more than 800 students and teachers. I will not include any of the many letters I received from students because well, frankly, they still need to be protected from some of their less than tolerant peers, but here are a couple of gems I received from teachers:
Brian de Montigny, a social studies teacher from Nelson writes: “It afforded a wonderful opportunity to discuss and encourage open-mindedness and compassion. We discussed the tragedy of teen suicide, especially given that a boy recently killed himself in nearby Kaslo. The message was that the hurt inflicted ‘innocently’ by children has a way of lingering and festering. Thank you for offering us the opportunity to engage in these sorts of important dialogues with our students.”
And Dave Gerlitz, who teaches English, Spanish, ESL and woodworking at the same school, writes: “The content of your stories provided good opportunity for follow-up class discussions about some important topics, such as empathy and kindness, both of which could go a long way toward reducing the exclusionary cliques and targeting/bullying that is sadly not uncommon where groups of young people (and older people) congregate.”
There you have it. Empathy, kindness and compassion were discussed because a big old homo came to school to tell stories. Aren’t those considered to be Christian values? I will have to save those letters for the next time the Christian right rattles its swords when we bring up the subject of anti-homophobia education in our public schools. I will remind them that the pen is indeed mightier.