Having been a closeted queer high school teacher at one point in my life, I’m familiar with the impotence of hearing epithets and observing bullies without being able to take action for fear of revealing my own secrets. It’s a miserable, sad experience not exactly conducive to learning anything except frustration. But, thankfully, it’s only one experience among many in the astonishing array available from Megan Volpert’s This Assignment is So Gay.
Seventy-five poets contributed to this brilliantly successful and important anthology, providing a broad range and deep breadth of experiences. They instill hope, not only for queer students and/or teachers, but anyone whose interests are beyond the curve. Sadly, the ones who need to read it most won’t, and those whose very existence depends on the affirmation found within these pages may not have access to it. That’s a real shame, because the work within opens doors on both the student and teacher halves of the equation so that each may understand the other more clearly.
Of the many variations of this equation, observations from teachers about students are among the most poignant, whether we’re talking about students at the collegiate level (Jeff Mann’s well-0bserved and magnificently articulated “Country Kids” and “Gallery, Virginia Tech”) or the secondary and elementary tiers. Many times out teachers are the only ones who understand life in the high school closet and become unofficial counselors as in Joseph Ross’s simple yet deadly “Conversations After Class 1,” Douglas Ray’s hopeful “Chaperoning,” or Scott Wiggerman’s powerful “Advocate,” but perhaps that emotional line is most clearly drawn in Donald Perryman’s “Was Melville Also Gay?” which sees a male student telling his teacher about his rape:
“It was, I assured him, a cruel crime,/but wondered if some of that pain/was the chronic, haunting thought/that sex between two males was wrong?/He said no (maybe only guessing the answer I hoped he’d give)/that it wasn’t because it was gay,/but just the awful fact that it was rape.”
And then there are the students we identify early as kindred souls in either sexual orientation or personal philosophy, doing our best with whatever limited resources we can to open up their minds and their hearts as in Terry Martin’s “The Third Wrestler Cries,” and Sophia Starmack’s “Earth Sciences”:
“Holding up his project, Jonah announces,/”There are billions of tiny orgasms living in the soil.”/He’s serene, studios, with blond ringlets/and a hand-drawn diagram of bedrock and roots./I’m torn, but in the end I just can’t correct an 11 year old/Week after week Jonah’s parents ask me, Is our son gay?/Has he mastered his times tables yet?”
We also see queerness from the teacher’s side of the desk as in Stephen Mills’s brilliant “After We Watch The History Boys in Class, My Students Fear I Want to Fondle Them” and Hadar Ma’ayan’s “On Being a Queer Middle School Teacher,” which begins with the middle school teacher in question being called a lesbian during class, provoking this reaction:
“In that moment of choice, I could have said, ‘She’s right’/Or ‘Let’s Discuss’/Or ‘Does anybody have any questions?’/But instead the fear rose in me/And I shrouded myself in a cloak of silence and said,/’Let’s all get back to work'”
Among these emotionally packed pieces are scattered other observations: about faculty meetings (Garth Greenwell’s oddly lyrical “Faculty Meeting with Fly”), non-gay classroom activities (Camden Kimura’s “My Mother Teaches Her Students About Hearing Loss”) and some feelings of intimidation that all teachers face in their first few years (notably, Molly Sutton Keifer’s wonderful “Student Teaching” and Sarah-Jean Krahn’s “Symptomatology of an Impostor”). But perhaps my favorite in this realm is Roma Raye’s “Big Fat Faker”:
“I barely know what I’m doing most of the time,/and the rest of the time?/I’m making things up. It is not unheard of/for me to be reading the text selection for the first time/with my first period students feeling like a jackass/for assuming the lesson I got off the internet that morning/would actualize into something decent.”
Anyone who’s ever been in front of a classroom knows that feeling. And if you teach or you’re a student, this volume will speak to you in ways both familiar and unfamiliar. You might get an opportunity to consider things from the other side of the desk, no matter which one you’re on. Kudos to Megan Volpert for putting together such a varied and interesting collection, and kudos to Sibling Rivalry for seeing its worth.
We all still have so much to learn.
© 2013 Jerry L. Wheeler