In a Key Moment, a Teacher Matters

Dec 27, 2016

There are moments in life that will forever impact who you are, and you will always remember every little detail of them: the birth of your child, your wedding day or even graduation night. This was mine.

I looked at the clock, needing to focus on something solid, like time. 2:33 p.m. I kept pulling at my sleeves and running my hands through my hair, the nausea slowly making its way from my stomach all the way through my body. The trembling soon followed. I went in one more circle around the group of desks while waiting for her to come into the room. “I can’t do this. I’m going to die.” My strange new mantra. It was one of those head-spinning, chest-pain-from-breathing, this is all just a nightmare, moments.

I was waiting for my English teacher, someone I found incredibly intimidating, which made the situation all that much harder for me. I knew I needed to do this in order to survive the rest of high school. I had been attacked before, punched in the face, pushed into lockers, tripped in the halls for people thinking I was even gay. What if I wasn’t a girl like they all thought? What would happen then? I had tried coming out before; I told my friend “I might think I’m more of a boy than a girl.” He told me I was confused so I didn’t say anything for years after. Not only could coming out now and having another person not accept my gender identity make it uncomfortable to be in her classroom, but I was struggling so much that I wasn’t going to school and, therefore, I was failing classes. At the time, I was harming myself and considering suicide. This moment would break me if it didn’t go right.

“So, I’m sorry if this is kinda weird…” I began, pausing in my head to add, “and I’m really scared to say it out loud.” I’m not even entirely sure how I blurted it out due to that “in-the-moment” panic, but I’m pretty sure it went something like: “So, I’m not really a girl. I hate labels but I guess I’m gender fluid or gender queer and yeah...I’m sorry...” I expected it to feel like forever before my teacher replied, and even when she did, I didn’t know what to expect in response.

The pause was minimal before I got a response: “Okay.” This one word stopped me in my tracks. “Okay.” My teacher was entirely okay with who I was, even if I wasn’t. There was nothing wrong with how I was feeling. It was “okay.”

“So what exactly does that mean?” she asked. I was taken aback. I had scripted this a dozen times and never once did I expect that. She allowed me to talk at my own pace about my fears and what had been happening since I began struggling with this idea until, eventually, I was able to say my new name and pronouns out loud for the first time. She gave me a space where it was okay to be confused, scared, hurt and most of all where it was okay to go by whatever identity I felt would help me succeed in school and be healthy. She then allowed me to admit the deep fear of how badly this had affected me (mentally) to this point. My English teacher’s response was, literally, a lifesaving one and a response that would help my education as an LGBTQ+ student.

I remember leaving the room, leaving my school feeling happy. It was funny because I had never left school feeling “happy” before or even “okay.” I had left school stressed, anxious, depressed and completely beaten before, sure. But never genuinely okay with going back on Monday and knowing I would be happy and safe, even if it was just for that hour-long class. That was a first. I knew I had someone who cared about me as a human, as my authentic self, as much as my grades.

Looking back, it’s funny that I was so scared to talk to her in the first place. She quickly became one of my most supportive teachers, someone with whom I felt most comfortable to be myself.

I realized how much she cared for her students when I stated my fear about wearing a suit to our school prom and she encouraged it, promising no one would be able to harm me. I didn’t know how she could make that promise but I trusted her.

Stepping away from her usual job of making sure I knew a hundred prefixes and suffixes, she allowed me to voice what was going on in my head, and I realized how influential she was in my life, how much I looked up to her and cared about her opinion of me.

Later, I learned that my teacher went to one of the prom chaperones and asked them to look out because she had actually listened when I explained how terrified I was. Being able to attend school events such as prom and feeling comfortable expressing oneself authentically is incredibly important to all students, but particularly LGBTQ+ students. In those situations we learn lessons we can’t learn from a textbook.

Lessons like the fact that as a student, you are more likely to do well in school because you can go to the school events and feel safe, like a part of the school community. Lessons like how much one teacher can impact the rest of your time in school and your life just by being supportive of whoever you are. You learn that it’s okay to be yourself in all those ways, in all those places. Sometimes, you even learn what you want to do with your life, like teaching the next kid in your situation some of these lessons.

If the response had been different when I admitted the truth about my gender identity, not only would I have continued to fail classes (and not attain my education and continue on to go to college, my ultimate goal), but I would have also continued harming myself and not be where I am today: ready to go to college with a plan for a future career and enjoying my final year of high school, being happy and okay with who I am.

I will forever be grateful for the amazing influence my teacher has in my life and the role she played in saving it.

Ev Nosworthy is a senior at Scarborough High School.