'Other Voices, Other Classrooms': The Musings of a Gay Middle School Teacher

For 11 years I've been a middle school Language Arts teacher. The rewards I receive are in the eyes and essays of my students when they "get it." There is nothing more nourishing to one's soul than to hear a student say in class, "I never thought about it that way." The objective is for students to leave my classroom with a greater world perspective -- one that will continue to grow along with their compassion.

As a gay man, I have experienced my share of intolerance and "chin-wagging" from adults whose world perspective is limited -- both in my small Southern Indiana hometown, and my adopted South Florida home. It is my goal to populate the world, as best I can via education, with the antidote to these kinds of die-hards and dogmatists.

I believe in literature. I also believe in the hero's journey and the opportunity it provides for organic discussion and thought regarding the human condition. Literature opens the mind and is the portal to facilitate opportunity, to develop empathy and reason, "to learn," as Atticus says in To Kill a Mockingbird, "a simple trick... [to] get along a lot better with all kinds of folks." And, "[that] you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view [...] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

Last fall my colleague and I attended the Educator Strategies for LGBTQ Student Support professional development workshop co-sponsored by the school district's Sexual Minority Network and Safe Schools South Florida. I wish it were mandatory for all district personnel. Talk about the opportunity to climb into another's skin! My HuffPost piece Safe Schools for LGBT Youth highlights the experience.

Two years ago this same colleague and I introduced one new book to our classics reading list, Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote. Ours is an 8th grade advanced placement Language Arts class, its curriculum developed with the rigor of a typical 10th grade literature course. Consistently our students rise to the occasion. Their depth of study, critical thinking skills, and insight presented in their literary analysis essays rival that of high school and some college level writing. To say my colleague and I are proud of our students' accomplishments is an understatement.

Other Voices, Other Rooms, first published in 1948, is the story of 13-year-old Joel and his longing for familial love. Joel's biological father is a paraplegic and unable to provide the paternal care Joel is desperately seeking. Another of the main characters, Cousin Randolph, a gay man, serves as a mentor and father figure for Joel. The story is southern gothic fiction and contains all the flavor of a backwoods Mississippi gumbo.

Statistics suggest that 1 in 10 students is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Therefore, in a class of 44, which my colleague and I teach, the probability is at least four students are LGBT. Statistically greater is the prospect that a student comes from a same-sex family or has a sibling or relative that is LGBT. Why shouldn't students be permitted to see themselves, their lives reflected in literature? My colleague and I contend it is critical. It's the reason we introduced the book.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, 21 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. Miami-Dade County and my school district also prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. My students are just beginning to discover the world around them. They are fortunate to live in Miami-Dade County and to be students in our school district.

But what about the students and teachers in the remaining 29 states -- Florida is one -- that are not protected on the basis of their sexual orientation? What would happen to a gay middle school teacher who introduced a novel with a gay character? Would there be blowback from other colleagues, students, parents, the school administration or district? Could the teacher lose his or her job? What message does it send to a student who happens to be gay? Whose parents are same-sex? Whose sibling is transgender? What about that student's rights? Is the institution charged with the student's education discriminating against him or her? Against his or her family?

After Other Voices, Other Rooms was introduced, a coworker set about getting it removed from the book list because it contained a gay character. The campaign, which consisted mostly of teacher lounge gossip, was unsuccessful. The school's administration acted expeditiously to curtail the "chin-wagging" and to provide conflict resolution. Aside from the administrations' advanced world perspective and compassion, its ability to climb into the skin of its faculty and students and walk around in it, I know the district's employment policy as well as Miami-Dade County's anti-discrimination law inclusive of sexual orientation assisted in this particular spark of intolerance being extinguished.

In To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus says to Scout, "Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win." History has proven he was on the right side.

We should all be like Atticus. Especially teachers.

Check out more from J. Patrick Redmond at jpatrickredmond.com, Kaylie Jones Books, and follow him at facebook.com/jpatrickredmond