Teaching Them into Existence

By Mykhiel Deych

Illustrator: Alaura Borealis

Alaura Borealis

Words don’t have a tangible weight, so how the hell do they hang so incredibly heavy on the body — stick to me like thistle burrs to wool socks?

A thin, penetrable coat of paint isn’t enough to cover the tremor of fear in any body when words have sunk into you — glare at you from the bathroom wall: “The faggots who use this bathroom are gonna be shot.”

Maybe if it wasn’t the gender neutral bathroom it wouldn’t frighten us so.

Maybe if it wasn’t an era of school shootings it wouldn’t feel like a direct threat.

Maybe if I wasn’t an out trans teacher tending to the tender hearts of the Queer-Straight Alliance (QSA) youth, maybe then I too could turn my other cheek.

The graffiti showed up in the bathroom next to the photography class — the class where Lilith thrived and felt the most herself, the most safe. The only class she never skipped or missed. This was Lilith’s bathroom. The one she used when she was still alive.

Suicide is, of course, complex. The final act in a seemingly endless struggle. When the world daily erases you or engrains in you the notion that you are not worthy — how does one find the strength to face each day? I can’t help but wonder if this horrific graffiti was cut No. 1,001.

Lilith chose to be a senior mentor for my 9th grade English class before we had ever met or knew each other. Most students are mentors for teachers who they had when they were 9th graders, but Lilith chose me because I’m the only trans teacher in the school and she is an openly trans girl. She was.

Lilith was seeking something in me: connection maybe, acknowledgement, comfort, safety perhaps. I don’t know, because whatever it was she didn’t get it from me. I tried to connect, but minimally so. We chatted and she revealed how much she writes and I said I’d love to read her writing; she never brought it in and I never asked again. She started regularly skipping classes and I’d send notes about missing her on the progress reports but I didn’t call home — why didn’t I call home? I mean, she was a senior mentor, not really my student, not really a role that most students take too seriously, not really — why didn’t I reach her? Why didn’t I do more?

Rationally, her suicide is not my fault, I’m a blip in the grand story of her life, but emotionally, she was within reach and I failed to clutch. I failed Lilith.

Teaching isn’t supposed to include life-or-death consequences, but it does. When it comes to LGBTQ students, we fail to hold space for their existence. Heterocentric, cisnormative curriculum writes out the existence of LGBTQ lives. Campaigns such as Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better,” spur and go viral precisely because we aren’t actually reassuring youth that their existence is acceptable, real, normal. We need an “It Gets Better” campaign because high school is awful for LGBTQ kids, high school is fatal.

How many LGBTQ authors do you teach about? How often is the intersection and difference of sexuality and gender addressed in your Socratic seminars? Do you discuss transgender history in U.S. history? Do you reveal authors’ struggles with sexuality and its relationship to their art? Has gay culture ever been given the credit it deserves for spurring numerous fashion, music, and art trends? No, and me neither. As an out trans and gay teacher I can’t always fend off the fear of a parental uprising about my “gay agenda.” This sort of bravery hasn’t yet materialized in my classroom, but I’m working on it.

Please, don’t leave it for the out gay and trans teachers to do this work. Please, I’m begging you to use your heterosexual cisnormative privilege for good. Teach LGBTQ lives into existence.

Mykhiel Deych (mykhieldeych@gmail.com) teaches high school English language arts.

Alaura Borealis’ work can be found at alauraborealisart.com.