My students don’t think anyone would shoot me. It’s sweet, but they are wrong. “You’re Ms. Hesik,” they argue. “You’re, like, nice to everyone. No one hates you.” Again, so sweet, and yet so naïve. The reality is, as an out lesbian teacher, there’s a chance that I would be shot just for that reason alone. The shooting at Pulse in Orlando, Florida, sadly proved my point. It’s still a risk to be openly gay in this country, in any state, in any city. Even in sunny, liberal Los Gatos, California. I know this, but the majority of my precious students are blissfully unaware of how dangerous it can be to kiss or hold the hand of someone you love beyond the walls of your home.
This no one-would-kill-you statement is inevitably said each year when I’m going over the “Shooter on Campus” drill in class, which is actually called “Intruder Protocols” so as to not freak everyone out. It usually follows this question: “Are you afraid of getting killed at school, Ms. Hesik?” I answer honestly. “Well, it seems like I have a better chance of being shot at school than anywhere else I go. And as an out lesbian teacher, I feel like my chances increase. But it’s a risk I’m willing to take,” I explain. “I’d rather be open about who I am and be happy and be a role model for you than hide. Now, back to the protocols.”
As a teacher, I struggle with making them see the seriousness of the drill, but I also don’t want to cause unnecessary stress. First we cover the type of announcement that they’ll hear, which is different at every school. Sometimes it’s “Code Red” or “Code Blue”- depending on the school colors. Sometimes it’s a secret message: “Teachers, bonus checks are now available in the lounge.” You know, something so ridiculous that we would all know something was terribly wrong. At my new school it’s a straight-forward choice: “Students and teachers, please follow lockdown procedures.” I explain the escape routes and show them the map of where to run to, but the bottom line is this: if you can, get the hell off campus any way possible. A series of “what if” questions pepper me throughout the presentation. While I try to answer them all, images of Sandy Hook creep into my brain: tiny five and six year olds huddled behind their teachers, hiding in cupboards, twenty of them standing in a classroom bathroom. I don’t show my anxiety or sadness to my students, but inside I’m breaking.
“If you can’t safely escape the classroom you’re in, we have been instructed to build a barricade in front of the door and resist the attacker if necessary.” I look around at their faces and wonder how in the world it has come to this. Next, we have to actually practice making a barricade so we’re prepared if the real thing ever happens. Some of the kids love this part. They like the challenge and hands-on nature of the activity. Usually a couple of students start to clear off tables right away and stand them up against the doorway. There’s discussion and arguments about placement- future engineers at work. Then desks and chairs are piled behind the tables until the structure is deemed impassable or too dangerous to add more. They are proud of the tower and dare anyone to break through. I wonder if practicing building barricades in classroom doorways is about as useful as bracing yourself for a plane crash. Would we stand a chance? It doesn’t feel like it. I don’t tell them that.
The next part is my least favorite. It’s when we huddle in a corner of the room and wait. We wait for an actual person to first try our door to see if it’s locked, then the door is unlocked and the mysterious person shakes and inspects our barrier. It always feels too real.
That’s what the shooting in Orlando felt like, too. Not in that, “Oh my god, that could have been me,” way because my club days are pretty much over. Besides, all the mass shootings that have occurred in this country have happened where I could have been, especially at a mostly white suburban school, where I now teach. But what was different was that I thought about how any one of those who were killed could have been one of my incredible and beautiful Latino gay boys that I met at the small-town school where I used to teach. These young men are some of the bravest humans I know. Growing up in a rural town as a closeted gay kid can be tough, but growing up in a rural town as an out gay Latino kid going to a school with a lot of homophobic students and adults is even tougher.
I’ll never forget the very first day of my first year there. One of these remarkable kids ran up to me and asked if I would be the advisor for the GSA. Word had obviously travelled fast that I was a big ol’ lezzie, so he sought me out immediately. Together, Adrian and I and countless other brave LGBTQ and straight-ally students created one of the most active GSAs in Northern California. And because of this, more kids started to come out. Because of Adrian’s bravery, other students were able to live a life of truth and openness-which is the only way to have ultimate happiness. These kids were more than just my students; they were my chickadees, and I their mama hen. I did everything in my power to protect them, educate them about their rights, and give them the space to be free and happy so that they could live free and happy lives during and after high school. I gave them my cell phone number so they could call if there was danger, which was present around every corner and in other classrooms. I fed them, I praised them, I celebrated them, and I loved them. I promised them, “It gets better” and that when they left that school, the world of bullies and stupidity would not necessarily disappear, but certainly lessen. “You’ll see,” I told them. “Grown-up gay life is beautiful.”
So, as I look at the pictures of those we lost in Orlando, I think about the loss of these incredible lives and of my darling chickadees. I know first hand the courage each of them has to live openly and honestly. I have heard their stories of struggle as they came out to their parents and friends. I have listened as they contemplated what their churches say and the internal conflict that caused. I have smiled at them as they fell in love, and I have comforted them as the love ended. My boys (and their beautiful allies) have a special place in my heart and always will. They’re now the same ages as so many of those who were killed: twenty-somethings just starting their grown-up gay lives. The thought of losing them in the way that the Pulse victims were lost, makes my stomach ache and my heart break. And I’m not even their mother. I’m not their sister, aunt, cousin, boyfriend, husband, best friend, or grandma. I’m just their teacher from a long time ago. But what I know about them that maybe not everyone in their life knows about them, is how brave it is to be them. Every time they hold hands with a boyfriend, go to a gay bar to dance the night away, march in a rally for gay rights, or attend Gay Pride parades, it’s an act of bravery. It is for all of us and our straight allies. Being out never ends and being out is always risky. Each time we say wife or husband, and girlfriend or boyfriend instead of “friend”, it’s an act of bravery. And every single person in that club that night was brave, too. Anytime we gays and allies gather, there’s that fear in the back of my mind: “Is this the day some crazy-ass man shoots us all down?” I don’t think I’m the only one who gets scared, either. But that doesn’t stop me, or any of us. We keep on braving it, loving openly, being our true selves; we don’t shrink back or hide. The price of hiding is too great, too painful, for not only us, but for everyone.
I am so incredibly grateful that I didn’t lose any of my students that night at Pulse and I’m sending love to every person who did. And I am so incredibly sad that this is the world in which we live and that my promise of a safer, better life after high school was a lie. Not entirely, I know. But this tragedy makes it harder for me to say it and believe it.
Back in the classroom we have to dismantle the barricade. We’re experts now at it and if the time ever came, we would know exactly what to do. At least there’s comfort in thinking so. Is this a new standard? Should it be added to the state tests? Seems like it sometimes.
Meanwhile, I don’t ever get to graduate high school; I’ll start my 16th year of teaching in August and more so than ever I feel like I’m in a job where I’m more likely to be gunned down. But I know I can’t dwell on that or care. What I care about is helping as many humans on this planet learn to be empathetic and kind and accepting of those around us. One way I do that is by being out to my students and letting them see a real live lesbian functioning as a fairly normal and happy person. It’s still hard for these kids, no matter their color or neighborhood, to come out. They still face abuse in the halls, in the locker rooms, and at home. They are still being beat up and are still attempting suicide at almost three times the rate of other teens. They still have the highest homelessness and addiction rate. So, despite a sinking feeling of hopelessness that creeps in once in a while, I’m not going to give up on doing what I can to show them life is worth living. Even if it’s still a little scary out there after high school, it is indeed a beautiful life.
So, thank you, readers, for being out and brave and for being amazing allies. Thank you for showing my former and future chickadees that grown-up LGBTQ life is wonderful. Thank you for showing them that they have a million brave soldiers battling against homophobia and mistreatment of all people. Please don’t stop doing what you do. Even when scary things happen, keep up the fight for rights and equality and our freedom to love safely. These kids need you more than ever, and so does this grown-up lesbian.
Hearts, glitter, rainbows and sunshine,