"To be nobody but yourself--in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else--means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting." ~e.e. cummings
How do you tell a kid that there's nothing wrong with him or her?
I have a student who, most of the time, appears to be miserable. After reaching out to her for quite some time, last month she finally confided in me and revealed the source of her misery: she is gay. This has caused her to feel so much self-loathing, and she feels so terribly alone. Due to a combination of fear of being outed and abandonment issues stemming from childhood, she pushes people away--sometimes because they have made off-hand homophobic comments, and other times simply because she is too afraid to get close to anyone. Her parents don't know her secret, and I don't think her friends do either. She was even intimidated to tell me, even though she acknowledged that I'm not an intimidating person.
We had a long talk that day. I shared with her one of my favorite quotes, by the great Dr. Seuss: "Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind." I told her that it is important to be true to yourself, because otherwise you will only hurt yourself. And if somebody doesn't like you for who you are? Fuck 'em. (She was quite shocked by this choice of words, but at least it got a smile out of her.) I also told her that while acceptance of who she is is of great importance, as you have to love yourself before anyone else can truly love you, this is not something that is just going to magically happen in one day. It's a process that requires work and patience.
I encouraged her to keep a journal, since she usually feels like she has no one to confide in. Knowing she would likely never get one for herself, I picked one up at B&N. I told her that she could spill all her angst onto its pages, but my one request is that she write down one positive thing per day, whether it is an inspirational quote, something good that happened, a picture she likes, etc. She said she'd give it a try, and asked how often she should show it to me, but I told her that this is for her eyes only, and that what she writes is none of my business unless she wants it to be.
Since then, there have been days when she has seemed better, sometimes smiling at me and saying a few words, and a couple of times even interacting with other students (which she had not done in my class in a couple of months), but she still so often seems unhappy. She had earlier been open to coming to talk to me again, but lately has been rejecting my suggestions to have a follow-up talk. I'm trying not to push her too hard, while still reminding her that I'm here to support her, but it doesn't seem to be working too well.
The district I teach in has a culture of homophobia. I'm not saying that all the people there are like that, but the amount of intolerance is really quite sad to see. These kids don't seem to realize how an off-hand comment like "that's so gay" and using the word "faggot" can be truly hurtful. I've always tried to stop people from using this kind of derogatory language, and now I feel like I have to be even more vigilant about it, as it is now also about protecting students. As an English teacher, it is my job to educate people about the power of language, and this is an important extention of that.
I wish there were easy solutions to these issues, and I wish I had all the answers. I guess all I can do is continue battling against the intolerance, educating people about why certain comments and words are offensive, and encourage others to do the same. No one should have to feel ashamed about who they were. It is so sad that in this progressive day and age that members of the LGBTQ community are so often made to feel like second-class citizens, on both a community and a national level. I hope that my student will someday be able to overcome her struggles and see herself as a beautiful person, inside and out, and I hope our society becomes more conducive to this.