Teachers never forget their first class of students. They hold an irreplaceable spot in our hearts, perhaps more than any other. My first group was no different, and when they left, I felt an immense loneliness reentering my classroom without them -- not only because they were gone, but because I had let them down.
You see, I prided myself on building my classroom around relationships. I preached from my proverbial soapbox about being yourself and finding your identity. Yet, there I sat at the start of summer vacation, unable to reveal a major part of my identity for two whole years. I was a hypocrite. A fraud. A failure.
All because I couldn't tell them I was gay.
Sexual identity isn't easy to discuss in a profession scarred by conservative bureaucracy. Standardized testing, rigid goals and teacher evaluations have only exacerbated an already challenging job. And in a world plagued by stereotypes that stigmatize LGBT educators, it's no wonder that even my close friends questioned my yearning to come out.
"What you do in the privacy of your home is no one's business," they'd say. "It's important to separate your personal and professional lives."
To a certain extent, they're correct. While students don't need every detail, by sharing ourselves as we really are, we forge impenetrable bonds with students. It's not enough to simply know them; they must know us, too.
Twenty-one states -- plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico -- have state-based employment nondiscrimination laws covering sexual orientation that apply to both private and public sector employers. That means 29 states still don't, and many LGBT educators fear coming out. In an environment where you are entrusted with the health and guidance of children, the stakes feel even higher. We worry: Will I be fired? Will parents be angry? Or worst of all, will my students no longer respect me?
My third year of teaching built up my strength to tell the truth, and then, in 2013, as my home state of Illinois legalized same-sex marriage, fate gave me a push.
A colleague approached me about discussing the legislation in the classroom. I eagerly agreed. We arranged articles showing both viewpoints, composed a letter to parents and sent it off. Within hours, we'd received supportive emails, thanking us for bringing the topic into the curriculum.
The next morning, however, the principal summoned us to her office.
"This topic is inappropriate for kids," she said, "and this is not the forum for changing the world, Paul."
Our discussion was banned, parents were notified and my reputation was smattered, all for attempting to introduce students to the plight of an underserved community. This discussion, the first of many, questioned my "personal agenda," and eventually led to punitive measures from scrutinizing my classroom book selection to de-meriting my evaluation.
And then, it finally happened.
Amid the controversy, the moment I'd been silently dreading for years appeared. Two of my precious girls came to me, concerned, apprehensive -- very unlike them.
"Everyone's making fun of you," they revealed. "They're saying you're gay."
Those same haunting questions flooded my mind: Will I be fired? Will parents be angry? Have my students lost respect for me?
"Well, do you know what that word means?" I inquired cautiously. They nodded.
"OK," I continued shakily, "Yes, I'm gay. But it's nothing anyone should make fun of. Just because someone calls me gay doesn't mean it's bad. It's true. I am gay."
Silence cloaked the room. After speaking for a few more minutes, they returned to drama class and the experience I had imagined to be climactic and dramatic was over. In fact, it ended up being the antithesis of everything I feared.
Instead of the end, it was the beginning of a new story.
Mr. France, the teacher they knew and loved, was gay. This new fact helped them see me, regardless of my sexuality. It taught them that sexuality is only one piece of an identity. Instead of equating the word "gay" with "weird" or a joke between friends, they now equated it with someone they first knew as their teacher: an avid reader, writer, problem-solver and musician.
The truth is that being gay isn't something I "do" privately. It's a part of who I am, and it has shaped how I view the world. It develops my understanding of the human condition and dictates the empathic interactions I have with each of my students. And while it might not be perfect, the landscape of our society -- and of education -- is changing.
With Pride Month here and summer drawing near, I once again prepare to say goodbye to my class. But I no longer feel alone. I am neither a fraud, hypocrite, nor failure. Today, I feel proud, not just of my own story, but of where the whole world is heading.