I Have Come Here to Die

On April 11, 1991, my first day on the job at Norman Thomas High School in New York City, Yarius, a student in my College Accounting course, asked me: “Why are you teaching?” His question probed for more than the introduction I offered the entire class: I went to public elementary school in East Harlem, graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School, had an undergraduate degree in accounting, a law degree, spent five years selling computers for IBM and, after taking a year and a half off to travel the world, had decided to pursue my lifelong desire to teach. I purposely gave a broad sketch of my life, leaving out details of my love interests or political views. I interpreted Yarius’s question in two ways: first, “If you have so much going for you, why are you ‘just’ a teacher?”; and second, “We students don’t deserve teachers who want to teach.”

“Why am I ‘just’ a teacher?” I did not want to be challenged so early. I have always wanted to teach, to dance, to act in the theater, and to write. But these were things that “faggots” did. And I was not a faggot. So I chose careers that were strong, tough, and highly principled, like accounting, law, and computer sales, professions you might identify with your father. In fact, people relied on me and I was very comfortable in the role of provider. In turn, I was rewarded with a career and incredible security. I wanted to be a respectable man in a respected profession.

Since childhood I have longed to teach, but every message I received reinforced the notion that respectable men did not become teachers. If men taught at all, men became professors, and only as a second career. If they taught high school, they became principals. So my real desire to teach grades four, five, and six was dwarfed by these capricious standards and my fear of parents accusing me of sexual abuse or statutory rape because I hugged some young boy.

“We don’t deserve teachers who want to teach?” I was unnerved because Yarius’s question conveyed the sentiment of the system: public school students were not entitled to “the best.” Norman Thomas High School, built in the 1970’s, had sound physical facilities. The school possessed several computer labs and state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment, and teachers had access to photocopy machines. Major drawbacks included a lack of teachers’ aides, basic supplies, maps, magazines, workbooks, and full class sets of current textbooks. In my College Accounting course, a special class for advanced seniors, all of the students had new books. But in every other class I taught, because of my status as a “new jack” faculty, my students were left with incomplete sets of current textbooks, no workbooks, or complete sets of earlier editions. In my naivete, I let a class of mine take home a set of twenty-year-old texts and workbooks. When word got out to the school administration, I honestly felt my job was in jeopardy. Using the computer labs to type up some of my lessons was also a mistake. I later found out that I needed permission and proper supervision (either the chairman of the department or one of the two paras assigned to the labs) to do so.

My biggest faux pas was returning a telephone call in the general office. While I was in mid-dial, the vice-principal for administration walked over, put her hand on the switch hook, and recited the rules and regulations on telephone usage. I know I looked at her as if she were a madwoman. The fact that she was a middle-aged white woman who probably taught students my age fifteen years ago contributed to why she felt she could address me in such a condescending way. After waiting for some color to return to her face, I reminded her that I understood English and could hear well enough that she did not have to shout. I also informed her that she was in no danger of attack, so she could remove her left hand from her hip and her right hand from my face. One of the office workers, an African-American woman in her late fifties, thanked me for not “slapping [the vice-principal] silly,” and later informed the school grapevine, which made me popular with certain staff.

I began to internalize what I also sensed in the classroom: although the school was named after a socialist leader and writer, the school did not belong to the students, nor were they entitled to fully enjoy what the school might have. Rather they were allowed to mostly look and not touch, to visit Thirty-third Street and Park Avenue as early as 8:30 a.m., and to retire to whatever part of New York City they lived in after the 2:50 p.m. bell. It was logical that students like Yarius question anyone who suggested they should receive “the best,” a sad lesson to learn so young, as well as for me to witness, so early in my own teaching career.

Though I wanted to fit in at Norman Thomas, I had made a conscious decision not to “pass” as heterosexual. Even before Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, I had already fallen in line: don’t ask me about my sex life, I won’t tell you a thing. If you do ask me about my sex life, I might tell. In the fourteen months I spent at Norman Thomas, I had come out ot only one other teacher, a gay man himself. He, a white Latino, and I were two of a handful of men of color on a staff of more than two hundred teachers. We were also among the youngest teachers on the staff (he was 28, I was 33, with the faculty’s mean age being 47). I had a lot of anxiety just talking to him, but was so hungry for an ally that I took the risk and struck up a conversation with him. After a few lunches, we somehow got onto the subject of what we did after work, and I talked about my involvement with Other Countries, a black gay men’s writing group. With his help, I got over some of my fear of talking about being gay at work. While at Norman Thomas, I developed close relationships with three African-American teachers, all female, all married, and all, to my knowledge, heterosexual. I could not find the strength to tell them I was gay.

Today, almost three years later, I am teaching at City-As-School, a New York City alternative high school. I am constantly reminded of my own student days in the sixties and seventies. Everything felt possible, and nothing was beyond question. I do not think many of my present students share the same feelings about their future: their opportunities, resources, and expectations have been limited.

I wonder at times if, as a Black gay male teacher, I am really making a difference. Many of the values I hold are alien to my students. I am startled and often surprised at their frequently conservative and rigid remarks regarding sex, recreational drug use, sexuality, and other “moral” issues. Most of the time I find I am left of center, still the precocious child, the sensitive teenager, the left-wing student with the right-wing college majors; still, in the words of fellow African-American co-workers, the “too-Black” IBM sales representative. My nephew takes an HIV/AIDS awareness class that I team-teach with Rhea Modeste, a straight African-American woman. I remember our many conversations about life, history, and politics when he was a young boy. I remember our weekend excursions to the Hayden Planetarium, museums, theater shows, movies, and ethnic restaurants. I remember encouraging him to draw, at age four, a dog in the park. His growth spurts are documented in several picture frames throughout my house. I have taken him on several out-of-state trips and introduced him to many gay friends, including my lover of three years, whom I make a point of inviting to all my family functions. But attitudes change slowly, a fact made clear when he remarked that he “respect[s] homosexuals but wish[es] they were not so public.” I was surprised and hurt by his comment. I was sad that I had talked with him at length about my friends and lovers. I was angry at myself that I had not been more forthright about my being gay, about him having a gay uncle. I made sure to invite him to my upcoming domestic partnership celebration, in hopes that the publicness of the event will stimulate dialogue between us.

I have had more honest conversations with other students about sex and sexual orientation. Many of the gay students in the school come and talk to me about their lives and their goals. I find it especially rewarding when I can support a student or two struggling with the same issues, offering resources they were unaware of or encouraging their process of self-exploration.

I feel good about being a teacher. I feel good knowing that many of my colleagues know that I am gay. While marching down Fifth Avenue, in the 1993 Lesbian and Gay Pride March, I was greeted and joined by at least seven fellow City-As-School staffers. The principal and several of my students spotted me on an African-American cable TV talk show where I shared about being Black and gay. But, although I have never felt better about myself or my work, I still constantly struggle with feeling totally comfortable in this profession. As a gay teacher, I struggle personally as well, knowing that the successive deaths from AIDS of so many of my friends have weighed me down. I am often unable to find language to express my own feelings of loss. In April of 1991, HIV and death were unintentional motivators for me to teach. Not until an ex-lover died of AIDS did I decide it was time to get tested for HIV, the virus believed to cause AIDS. I had waited for years for some physical sign, some indicator that I might be infected. When I tested positive for HIV on November 18, 1992, I was not surprised. On that day I breathed a sigh of relief and cried three times on the way home from the anonymous testing site — once for my mother, who I did not want to see me die; a second time for my cousin Sheilah, with whom I had grown so much; and the third for my lover John, who I feared would witness me deteriorate. I was too numb to cry for myself.

When Rhea asked me to team-teach the HIV/AIDS awareness class, I was reluctant. Pressing fears about being so “out” were paralyzing. Even though many of my students know that I am gay, their remarks are often homophobic and reflect an erroneous association between HIV and being gay. But once I agreed to teach the class, I had every intention of disclosing my seropositive status. I never did. I was afraid of being perceived as the “infected gay carrier” who warns students to protect themselves from “high-risk groups,” which ironically includes gay men and sexually active teenagers. I also found it difficult to echo the prevention messages routinely targeting the public which separate people into “the negatives” — those who must be spared — and “the positives” — those who will end up with AIDS and die.

Eventually, I know I will talk about being gay, how being gay, and being HIV-positive, for that matter, does not mean having AIDS. I know too that sharing this information will add to my own healing and will help define who I am. I know now that I began teaching because I was unconsciously preparing to die. I continue teaching because I am looking forward, more consciously than ever, to tomorrow.

© B.Michael Hunter 1993

This essay was published in One Teacher in Ten: Gay and Lesbian Educators Tell Their Stories, Ed. Kevin Jennings, 1994. An early draft of this piece appears here.

Cooperative Learning

B.Michael was a life-long learner. He was also strategic and skilled at navigating systems. As an employee of the New York City Board of Education, he made sure to optimize his opportunities.

If you came into this system with a master’s degree as B.Michael did — he had a J.D. under his belt — you could set your sights on the highest possible credential as a public school teacher by pursuing a Doctorate degree OR a National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification OR 30 additional credits.

He chose the latter, the so-called “Masters+30” path. This collaboratively written paper on Curriculum Development and Issues capped off a summer class for which he earned credits.