What I learned visiting schools

I’ve just returned from a week of school visits in the New York area. In five days, I visited five schools. I’m exhausted and I have a lot to accomplish this week, but I wanted to start the week by sharing some of the lessons I learned from the visits.

1) Kids are great. I guess I didn’t learn this, but I re-learned it. There is so much to be hopeful for in our future. When I hear people talk about “the kids these days,” I want to laugh. It’s the same garbage we heard when I was growing up. There is amazing talent and there are open hearts and minds in every generation and this one is chock full of both, from what I see. The problems we are dealing with now will be solved by this younger generation. As a good friend of mine often says, we just have to wait for some people to die.

2) LGBTQ issues are different for this generation. Again, this is not new information. It’s just that I learned it again, and more profoundly. A lot of the work that needs to be done is not in telling kids that LGBTQ people exist, but in educating them about what it means when a person has a different sexual orientation or gender expression or whatever else the letters stand for. They’ve seen gay characters on TV. Tons of times. What they haven’t necessarily done is thought about what it means for a person to be “different” in that way. Many of the kids I encountered wondered what the big deal was. It’s a good question. My answer is that until it really isn’t a big deal, until we all have the same rights and we all are equally safe walking down the street and identifying as something other than heterosexual is not seen as a negative, it simply is a big deal. We have to create a world in which difference is celebrated before we can pretend that differences don’t exist.

3) Younger kids are ready to talk about these issues, or at least hear about them. A few years ago, when I was doing school visits, it would never have occurred to me that I would speak to anyone who wasn’t in high school or college. This trip, I spoke to 4th and 5th graders at two different schools. I spoke to 6th graders at four of the schools. For these age ranges, LGBTQ issues need to be addressed in two ways:

a) Bullying. Is it okay to be different? Is it okay to make fun of someone who is different? Has anyone ever made fun of you? How did it feel? What do you do when someone makes fun of someone else in your class? The fourth and fifth graders I met were very ready to talk about this. Beyond that, I identified myself as gay by explaining that I have a husband and a puppy. Sadly, this may now mean that there are fourth and fifth graders out there who believe all gay people have puppies.

They would not be entirely wrong.

b) A family issue. Meaning, who makes up a family? What if a family has two moms or two dads? If it turns out that a person is gay or lesbian, can they have a family? Who will they have a family with? Simply explaining that I have a husband and a puppy helped the kids understand that I have a family too. It was powerful to hear the questions the kids asked. These kids simply need to put a face to the idea. It becomes a lot less scary to know that some people are this and some people are that when they know people who are both this AND that.

4) Hate is often a disguise. I visited a school in New Jersey. This inner-city school is not a safe place for LGBTQ people, at least not yet. While speaking in two assemblies there, I had to deal with some hostility. Some of the kids were clearly not comfortable hearing my story, and they showed that with laughter, pointing, and mean words.

But beneath that, some other things were going on. One example: A boy at the school was part of a group of kids who were really acting out during the first assembly. Someone from his group (possibly him, I’m not sure), told me it would be better if I was dead. This was hard to hear, sure. But what happened next was more important. He and his buddies got up and left after the assembly, but he came back and listened again.

I don’t want to make assumptions about why he did this, but the point is that he needed to hear something I was saying. He may have never heard someone like me speak before, someone who was there to say that it’s okay to be gay, and that you can be happy and healthy and gay.

So I think behind hatred is a lot of other stuff that can be more complicated to unpack. Fear, for sure. Ignorance obviously. But what about inquisitiveness? Maybe in some schools it’s easier to show hate than to ask a real question. What about insecurity? Sadness? Confusion?

As a postscript: I heard from the woman who invited me to that school this morning: I am heartened by her feedback. Among other things, she said, “We were having trouble solidifying our version of a GSA and your visit brought us together, directed us, and instilled a new sense of urgency.”

If that’s the case, then the visit was more than worth it!

5) Finally, the most interesting lesson I learned is that you have to find ways to not carry the energy with you. When you talk to groups of people (I spoke in front of thousands of people last week), you have to find ways to scrub away other people’s stuff. By stuff, I mean: Fear, excitement, anger, insecurity, sadness, all that karmic stuff people carry around. I truly believe that I was walking around shouldering other people’s energy last week, that it must have flown off them and onto me as a part of the sharing process. Nothing else I can think of could account for the exhaustion I felt every day leaving a school. It’s an incredible feeling to be able to possibly help so many people, and yet at the end of the day, you have to leave their stuff with them.

Next time I do this, I’m going to figure out a way to do that. I hope!

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2 Responses to What I learned visiting schools

  1. I felt very privileged to sit in the audience at two of the assemblies you spoke at. I particularly loved listening to the kids’ questions. “Are you married?” “When did you know you were gay?” “Were you ever bullied?” And then all of the questions & comments about sports, given your ESPN background, and even some questions about being a writer. I know you made a difference for these kids. Just opening up the conversation makes a difference! Well done, Bill.

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