Every time I do a storytelling gig in a public school, I swear to myself that I will never do it again.
I promise myself that this is the last time, that the next time they ask me I will remember that I have decided to avoid attempting to entertain large groups of teenagers for health reasons, that breathing gymnasium air makes me dangerously dehydrated, that hallways lined with lockers can cause painful Grade 8 flashbacks.
High schools remind me of high school, I can’t help it. I graduated 20 years ago, but all it takes is the sound of the first period buzzer going off or the smell of floor wax and it is 1985 again, and I am skinny and self-conscious. I hate my legs, my flat hair, my flat chest, my chipped front tooth. I am scared of change rooms and crowded cafeterias. I am scared of myself, of the secret heart inside me that doesn’t beat like it is supposed to and makes me different. I don’t know I’m queer yet, but I know what happens to kids who don’t fit in.
Every time I walk through the front doors of another high school, I remember what it was like to hide, to pretend, to practice not being different.
I watch the kids, noticing the ones who avoid my eyes instead of staring. I am not here to change the minds of the many. I am here for the kids who think they are alone.
The skinny boy with the long eyelashes who knew he was a fag even before they started calling him one in gym class. The Catholic girl who confesses only to her journal and prays that God will make it go away. The oldest daughter of a former beauty queen whose mother makes her see a shrink once a week ever since she got busted French kissing a girl named Marie on the couch in the rec room when they were supposed to be working on a three dimensional model of a molecule.
These are the kids I want to be seen by, the kids I want to stand in front of, unashamed and unafraid.
I don’t say I’m queer, because I don’t need to. I wear cowboy shirts and big black boots and tell stories. I tell them that my writing pays all my bills, that I love my job, that they can be artists too, not just lawyers and dentists and assistant managers.
A couple of months ago, I got an e-mail from an English teacher, asking me to come and perform in a high school in Surrey.
Surrey, with its school boards that like to ban books with titles like Heather Has Two Mommies. Surrey, famous for its libraries that lack copies of the Harry Potter books, because they encourage children to believe in magic, and promote witchcraft, which is unchristian, unless you happen to be turning water into wine, parting seas, walking on water, or rising from the dead.
Did I want to risk a gig in Surrey? Absolutely not. I was halfway through writing a polite letter saying that I was busy that day, when I stopped to consider what school must be like for young homos in Surrey. How could I turn my back on the queer kids who needed me most? How often was a gay storyteller even allowed inside a high school in Surrey?
I said yes, and immediately started to stress out about it. I arranged to bring my friend the punk-rock cello player with me, for moral and musical support.
A couple of weeks before the gig, I got an e-mail from the English teacher. He explained that one of the other teachers had Google searched me, and had raised concerns about inappropriate sexual content in my work, and would I mind sending copies of all the stories I was planning to read, so the staff could make sure I wouldn’t say anything that might offend anyone? There would be a couple of Mormon kids in the audience, he added, and the school wanted to avoid any trouble.
I took a deep breath, smoked two cigarettes, and called him on the phone. I liked him, and I knew he meant well.
I told him that the reason I do gigs in high schools is to show the kids that being an artist is a viable career option, to inspire them to believe that writing or painting or playing an instrument is just as important as algebra or volleyball. I told him that I would never do or say anything that would jeopardize the chance to bring other artists into his school, and that I was there to encourage creativity, not homosexuality.
I told him that I wouldn’t say anything too gay, but that I looked queer and if looking queer was also against school rules then I could recommend another talented storyteller who also might offend the Mormon kids because he is from the Dogrib First Nation and believes in magic and different gods, but at least he is heterosexual.
So the cello player and I did two one-hour sets in a Surrey school last week. I told wholesome stories, and she swore once in one of her songs, but none of the teachers batted an eye, they were so relieved that we didn’t bring up how obviously queer we both are. The principal gave us each a mug and a matching pen, and a thank-you card with a cheque inside.
That night we both got myspace messages from the girl with the purple brush-cut who sat in the front row during the afternoon set.
She was smiling in her picture, her cheek pressed up against her girlfriend, who had orange hair and a nose ring. She was just writing to tell us how much she loved our show; that it was the best thing her school had ever seen.
I clicked on her profile. It said she was 16, a lesbian, and an aspiring writer.