The Face of Courage

As many of you know, my recent years in education have been very difficult. I’ve endured verbal abuse from students and parents, been viciously sexually harassed, accused of and investigated for egregious and baseless claims regarding my teaching practice and craft, worked for inept and simply uninvolved administration—and the list goes on.

In an effort to find my light, love, and a home school to rediscover my love for my work in public service, I landed back at Virgil Middle School—my very first home in Los Angeles 12 years ago. My fall semester was agonizing and I will leave it at that. Every single class on my roster except my honors class had failing averages. I made countless parent phone calls, met with virtually every single parent (some more than once), and honestly, my spirit was broken. So when I assigned my most recent oral project to my students; as you can imagine, my expectations were admittedly quite low. What happened next are a series of events that will forever be etched upon my soul that have truly transformed me.

The assignment was simple: Depict yourself in the duality of how the world sees you juxtaposed to how you see yourself. Students could choose to convey themselves in human or animal form.

One after the other, my students stood in front of their classmates and authentically shared their darkest deepest hurt, insecurities, battles, and above all their revelations.

One girl in her power stood in front of us and said (and I paraphrase), “I am tired of hiding, pretending, and feeling different. I am tired of fighting who I am and I need to tell you, tell the world that I am gay. And I know that many people in the world will have a problem with that, but I am just so confused and I am so tired of not feeling like I can be myself. But here I am—I not hiding any more. I am gay.”

Every single student in my class had started crying. Tears flowed from my face and onto my sweater. I was so engrossed in what was unfolding before my eyes, I hadn’t bothered to wipe my face. I stood up and applauded loudly. I hugged the young girl and looked her in the face and told her how brave she was, and that her courage inspired me.

Then, a young boy raised his hand, “Can I go next?”

In his soft and delicate voice, he told us that he much prefers to hang out with the girls. That he’s afraid that he won’t have friends or that people will judge him if he tells them who he really is, how he really feels, and of his struggles with his sexuality. He tells us that he’s fearful the people on his sports teams will not accept him, bully him, and treat him differently if he tells them who he really is.

Then, he looked at the young girl who previously shared, she is sobbing and the entire class is too. He thanked her for giving him the courage to stand tall in front of his classmates and share with us that he was bisexual.

Students raised their hands, asking if they could talk to these young people. And right there in room 325, lives were changed, perspectives forever altered, compassion facilitated, and bridges were built. Student after student, with tears staining their faces exclaimed that they have these students backs forever, that they love them, support them, and that love is love—who the hell cares what someone looks like as we are all human and deserve to feel worthy in this world.

My students lined up to hug these pioneers. Audible sobs emerged from the masses of huddled bodies congregating in various parts of the room and I couldn’t help but someone think that every single bit of what I have been through led me to this very moment in time. Every time I sat in an office and was reprimanded for my rigor and high standards, every parent complaint that I gave too much homework, every kid who cursed me out, and even the parent who verbally attacked me in room full of parents was supposed to happen. It was preparing me to be able to hold space for these young people and gave me opportunity to create a safe zone for my students. And the thing is, I would do it all over again. What happened today was supposed to happen. I was supposed to be a vessel for these young people to find safety, stability, love, a voice, and above all—I helped them find themselves.

You know, they say that the greatest lessons to be learned about life, love, purpose, meaning, and priority are to be learned from children. Today, I saw the many faces of courage and that love always, always, always, wins.