I was bullied badly when I was a student, starting all the way back in elementary school. It started in my fifth grade Physical Education class. I knew I was different, but I was trying very hard to keep it a secret. I didn’...
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- Hero's Backstory
I was bullied badly when I was a student, starting all the way back in elementary school. It started in my fifth grade Physical Education class. I knew I was different, but I was trying very hard to keep it a secret. I didn’t want to be rejected by my family, my friends or my church. But I didn’t throw a ball in the most masculine ways. One of the boys yelled, “You throw like girl!” Then others joined in. “You’re a queer,” they said, laughing. “You’re gay! You’re gay!
I was tormented inside. This was my secret. I never wanted anyone to know. It was clear that I was devastated, but the PE teacher did absolutely nothing and simply said “get back to the game.” After school, I ran home and cried. I had to go to school and face the tormenting day after day, but I didn’t let anyone know or give anyone a clue that what they were saying about me might be true – that’d they’d discovered the secret I’d wanted to keep buried. By high school, the constant bullying led me to extreme depression. My grades dropped, and so did my aspirations.
I attempted suicide twice.
When I recovered and finally came to terms with who I was, I knew I was going to dedicate my life to making sure that no other kids would endure what I endured.
I became a middle school language arts teacher and made my classroom a safe place for everyone. I wasn’t an openly gay teacher at that time, but I was a very vocal LGBT ally. I helped start and co-advised my district’s first middle school level Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) club, and I designed a comprehensive staff development training program on LGBT youth; a program enthusiastically received in several districts.
But it wasn’t easy. I remember how excited I was to be middle school teacher, I had butterflies about the start of my career. I never thought that the climate would be so similar to what I experienced. I heard the same anti-gay comments, the same cruel put downs, and it was just accepted by everyone at the school. I was horrified. I was reliving my own personal trauma, but worse, I knew there were probably LGBT students who were hearing these slurs and experiencing their own trauma. That was like a knife going into my side. But it only fueled the way I taught in my classroom. I wasn’t afraid to talk about LGBT issues in my classroom, and students knew they were safe there.
I spent nine years as a middle school teacher, but knew I needed to make a bigger impact. I got a masters in administration because I wanted to learn how I could lead a school that focuses on climate as key factor in achievement. I also got a masters in school counseling, and now I’m a high school counselor in Val Verde Unified School District in Perris, California.
I can be in that office setting and be that one caring person that students know they can come to. My office is a safe place, and my students know that bullying of all forms will be dealt with immediately, appropriately, and effectively.
This is my second year and it’s been absolutely amazing. Once I put that “safe space” poster up, stories started pouring out of these kids. Sometimes I’m the very first person they tell about what’s really going on in their lives, and I give them the needed resources and support. Then they don’t become one of those statistics.
We can’t allow these suicides to continue.
As educators, we have a powerful responsibility, more than we sometimes realize. Often we are the first people that students trust and come to for help when they are in crisis. To be able to be there for students in your school, I would make sure that you have a clear, comprehensive bullying policy that is enumerated and includes sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. A “zero tolerance” policy is not enough. You need to name it so teachers are empowered to address it.
Training is also key. The National Education Association provides training and there are others that are also available for free. I am the chair of “Solutions to a Crisis: Supporting Students, Saving Lives,” and we hold an annual conference in February that is the only such meeting that addresses the issues facing LGBT youth (you can learn more about that here: http://www.lgbtqia2012.org).
To find out how you can address bullying of LGBT students and bullying in all forms, please visit http://www.nea.org/neabullyfree and take the pledge to be one caring adult who will help put an end to bullying.
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