Many of you know this story.
Ten years ago I was teaching high school and I was also helping to lead the Gay/Straight alliance during lunches. I’d put out a couple of books by this time–a lot of them self-pubbed but some through Dreamspinner Press, and I’d gotten some notice. Truth in the Dark was one of the books, and so was Litha’s Constant Whim.
For those of you who remember, kids were throwing themselves off bridges in Michigan (I think–ugh–ten years, and politics fades!) around this time because Michelle something-better-forgotten and her husband-who-had-prayed-the-gay-away were in politics and Michelle Bachman (THAT’S her name!) had literally made it illegal for teachers to stop bullying based on sexual orientation. Teachers were watching kids get bullied to death, and they were afraid to say something because of their jobs.
National Coming Out Day was new then–maybe it was the first one? Maybe it was the second? But I told my students that in honor of National Coming Out Day I was giving my proceeds for sales on that day for the two books I had that dealt (tangentially) with self-harm– Truth in the Dark and Litha’s Constant Whim.
The kids were super excited and one of them–17 YO at the time–wanted to read the books.
I’d been giving my books to kids to read for years. From Vulnerable on, really. I hadn’t started out that way–but I’d told them that I’d written books because hey! Teachers got a lot of the “Those who can’t do, teach!” bullshit, and I wanted to prove to them that I was constantly trying to improve my skills in my craft. The kids loved it–even if they didn’t want to read the books. A couple of kids found out my pen name and bought their own copies and the books made the rounds and I’d figured the world hadn’t come to an end so I kept a little lending library of my own books on my desk.
For the record? My colleagues wouldn’t accept MY books for book reports because really, how good could they be? Also for the record? I loved the guys, really I did, but it’s possible to love the guys you work with like pain in the ass brothers while simultaneously admitting that they are also misogynistic pricks. And they were.
Anyway–on this day, a kid asked to read my books. I said “Let me think about it,” because this kid wasn’t in my class. I asked his friend–who was on the straight side of the alliance, but who had a reputation as somewhat of a player–or at least someone who was not shocked, not in the least, about the sexual content found in romance books–if his friend would be up to reading books that, while not super erotic, also didn’t fade to black and end scene.
His response (curiously enough, it echoed my own thought in these matters) was, “Geez–the girls get romance books from the library that are so much more explicit than your books. I don’t see the problem.” He was right, by the way. Does anybody remember Ellora’s Cave and Samhain publishing houses? I do. I probably couldn’t make it into Ellora’s Cave, not even now. Just not enough raw penis in my writing, I’m telling you. Anyway, the librarians at the time had taken one look at the books and thought, “Oh, romance, like Harlequin,” so I was getting book reports on Ellora’s Cave, which was awesome, and my books couldn’t get reported on because why? Nevermind. I’m not that bitter about it now.
But just in case, we agreed that he should print out the stories and take the sex out, giving his friend the abridged version.
Sadly, the sex, just the sex, and ONLY THE SEX was what his parents found in the printer, and when he told them, “It’s cool, my teacher gave it to me,” well, you can see how I ended up talking my administration with my union rep for company.
The head of HR at the time had the last name of Embree, and I only remember this because his brother worked at our school and they both had the same last name, and they were both Mormon, and this guy had an anti-gay agenda that radiated out his pores.
He read a prepared statement that promised to bring the wrath of the police down on my head, and I said, “What?”
“There is a folder on my desk about two inches thick with what I can only call pornography on my desk!”
To which I replied, “Jesus, Mister, whose books did you read?”
I called my union lawyer and he called another lawyer (my credential lawyer) and while both lawyers loved me and wanted to do their best for me…
I was done.
I was so hurt.
I had actually helped to build that school. Their creative writing curriculum had been written BY ME, but the department head didn’t want to give me the class because, well, I was a girl. The one place they were doing decent in testing was in vocabulary–particularly the juniors. Why? Because I’d written a vocabulary curriculum that could be used through all the grades, so in the mad scramble for classes that happened in the first six weeks, the kids could have one goddamned consistent thing. The men refused to use it. The reason it was working for the junior classes? Because the three teachers were women and we basically told the men to fuck off. Senior project, a program I created that basically saved our fucking bacon during the certification? Yes, I designed it, I put it forward and made it stick, and when the fucking cowardly administration didn’t want to pay me to do all the work it entailed, I told the rest of the school they needed to help me ON THE ADMINISTRATION’S SAY SO and I had to face the consequences. And then, just when it started to work, two men pulled me off of it, because I was a girl and I couldn’t possibly be doing it right.
I had helped build this school, and time and time again, it had crapped all over me.
The year before, during graduation, I was standing at the gate, trying to keep parents from going back to their cars and getting too high (I’m not kidding here) and we realized that the stadium was too packed. Someone had gotten the bright idea to forge the tickets we gave to students that they could give to their family–it was dangerously crowded.
Security closed the gate, and left me on the side with all the screaming parents.
Who were all high and drunk and screaming at me.
They opened it just a tad to let me get on the other side, but it was an ugly and terrifying ten minutes, and it told me exactly how much I was valued by my school system.
And now, in October of 2010, they were letting me know all over again.
I told my lawyers all I wanted was a settlement. They said, “We can get your job back!” They had both read the stories and had gotten to the end and asked me where exactly the porn started. I was like, “THAT’S what I wanted to know!”
A settlement wasn’t good enough for the school school. They hired a big time lawyer and paid her probably three times what my settlement was at the end (I was part time after all–I had four kids, one of them still in pre-school, and I was needed for transportation if nothing else!) to try to fire me instead.
She went through my blogs and tried to find a place where I’d confessed to doing something worth firing me for–because giving a kid a book that wasn’t porn was obviously not enough.
No dice. A year and some months after I’d gotten pulled out of my classroom, I got to go back and collect my things.
My colleagues had raped my bookshelves for books that had been given to me. That was nice. Patrick Crean, if you’re out there? Fuck off.
And the pictures and notes I’d kept from kids who’d graduated had to be rescued from under a pile of pencil shavings. The room I’d been so proud of–had decorated every year with a different theme–had been turned into a warehouse for old desks.
I remember playing Linkin’ Park and Foo Fighters and Beastie Boys at top volume while I went through my stuff. I’d brought a friend with me who wanted me to try to milk everything in the room for it’s monetary value and she didn’t understand when I told her that this wasn’t why we were there.
And then I filled my car with stuff–some of which is still in the garage–and walked away.
I miss it. I miss teaching. I’ve done a bit of it in the last couple weeks and I want to get to a point where I teach a class a week. That would be lovely. There is a joy and an energy I get from sharing what I know and love with others–it’s part of why I write, but teaching is so much more animated.
But I’m still glad I walked away.
Ten days after I’d gotten pulled from my classroom, I got to meet my publisher for the first time. I was a mess–I was a breath away from tears in any sentence, jumpy–ADHD at its finest, 24/7. I was practically psychotic for lack of sleep and generally a complete mess. She sat me down and held my hand and said, “What do we have to do to make it so you never have to go back there and teach again.”
And then she did her best to make it so.
That moment of having someone believe in me when I was almost hysterical with self-doubt has never left me. I hope I’ve given back what I received in that moment, but I don’t think its possible. I’ll keep giving, because it’s a debt of love I can never repay.
And I’ve learned so much since then–so much about the difference between what people say about you and who you really are. So much about perception on the internet and reality with actual people you talk to and care about. So much about the slanderous vagaries of popular opinion and the things that really matter.
Some of my children have come out, in one way or another, since that day ten years ago. I don’t mention it a lot on the internet because it’s personal to me–but also because I don’t trust the internet community the way I used to–and boy, those were some hard lessons to learn.
But the things that started me on this path–the immersing myself in different worlds, in the lives of different people, in my craft and in my genre and subgenre– these things remain as magical to me as the day I first opened up a spiral notebook in high school and wrote a 24 page epic poem in my shitty handwriting.
Writing is still my lodestar and my true north. Creating imaginary playmates is still a thing I believe is important, because even when the world and social media is a cesspool, imaginary playmates are still so pure.
So, here’s to an odd anniversary. One that changed my life. Ten years ago, I thought it was ending my life–I’ll be honest. I couldn’t drop the kids off at school without crying as soon as they got out of the car. I used to lose my keys constantly and forget I had shoes and sometimes even forget where I was going when I was taking kids to school or home because I was so preoccupied with the complete change of everything I’d expected my life to be.
And now that the world is a completely different place, it’s hard to look back on that anniversary see myself so defeated.
If we only know that we can survive, the pain and uncertainty seems bearable. It’s the not knowing that may kill us.
It’s the hope that sees us through.