Update: The students did it! The re-vote from the board yielded a unanimous vote in favor of forming the Coexist club. I’m sincerely thankful to the students, to their advisor Christina Baker, and to Superintendent Bruce Deveney for their leadership and for making the right choice to support every student.
A brief personal note: Though I usually write about tech geek stuff here, I’d been following a story from my high school alma mater that was of particular interest to me, and I wanted to take a moment to write a note to the members and supporters of Coexist, the Gay-Straight Alliance at East Pennsboro High School. East Pennsboro’s mascot is the Panther, and most of the football games and pep rallies I went to tended to talk a lot about “Panther Pride”.
First, to the students behind Coexist, thank you: I appreciate anyone who is trying to be a voice of love and tolerance in a place that, all too often, has forgotten to value those principles. I know it’s not an easy conversation to have, and I appreciate your courage. I also wanted to give a little bit of perspective from someone who’s fought those same struggles, though it was quite a few years ago.### Who the heck am I?
As background, I’m now living in New York City, where I’ve been very fortunate in my life and in my professional career to get to have opportunities I never could have imagined back when I was a student at East Penn. I was in the Computer Club back then (computers weren’t very popular yet), and today I get to work with a lot of the people who make the websites and apps you use every day. I was in the Youth in Government program, and today the non-profit that I’ve been running gets to work with all levels of government from city government here in New York all the way up to the White House. And I was in the Newspaper Club, which helped me see myself as a writer and has led to me now having the ability to have my words published where millions of people can see them.
So, in short, I’ve been really lucky. But I also spent a lot of time in high school figuring out my identity and my place in the world, and I deeply wish there had been a place or a club that would have supported that effort. Though things are slightly more diverse in the school district now, at the time I was attending, there were almost no other students who were of the same background as me, or raised in the same religion, or who had the same skin color, or who ate the same things for dinner, or who spoke the same language around the house. That was a deeply isolating realization.
What’s more, I knew I didn’t conform to the traditional male gender roles as they’d been described to me in that community. While today I identify as a (boring, old) straight male who’s been married for years and has a happy little baby boy, I never took for granted that I would settle on an identity that is so privileged in our culture. Instead, I identified very strongly with all my close friends who were lesbian, gay, questioning or queer, as I knew they had to actually reckon with their identities, just as I had.
When I first moved to New York City, I saw the Pride Parade here, and I had only known the word “pride” from hearing the phrase “Panther Pride” at pep rallies back at East Pennsboro. At first, I thought this must have been two different meanings for the same word. It seems clearer than ever to me now that, actually, they were very much two uses of the same word being used to represent one important concept.
What I Learned
When I say that I reckoned with my identity, I don’t just mean that I was figuring out who I am. I also mean that I had to confront other people’s biases and prejudices about every aspect of myself. Over my years going to East Pennsboro schools, I had my nose broken, my car vandalized, my parents prank-called, and had a teacher call me out during school hours for not being of her preferred religion. Worse, I struggled enough with being different that I questioned myself, thinking I must have been crazy or wrong or misguided, or that the things that made me unhappy must have been my fault. At my worst, I wasn’t just miserable and self-destructive towards my own life, I was mean-spirited and unkind towards other students who were probably going through similar things.
But eventually, I figured it out. And the combination of my loving, compassionate, patient parents along with my incredibly understanding, tolerant, and supportive friends got me through. I knew, though, that there were adults in positions of power, whether they were teachers or administrators or just parents in the community, who thought struggles like mine were wrong or bad or selfish or just a cry for attention.
I know I just seem like some guy who’s twice your age talking about stuff that he might not understand, but I really have been in your shoes. I got kicked out of class a few times for everything from wearing lipstick to wearing a dress to writing “love sees no gender” on my t-shirt. But I also remember sitting with Ms. Baker in Ms. Vasquez’s English class, where everyone rightfully ignored those parts of how I expressed myself in order to focus on what I was actually writing. It made a huge difference in the course of my life.
The only distraction, then, was by those who chose to make an issue of how I expressed myself and my identity. And the only thing that helped me overcome those distractions was having a supportive community of friends who showed me that they accepted me for who I am.
Tonight, adults who’ve been chosen as leaders in your community are going to make another decision as to whether they think you deserve to exist as an official club to support your fellow students. They’ll argue whether it’s a distraction from learning, and whether the school district has enough money to support the minimal costs for the program.
Let me be clear: There is nothing more important we can learn as young people than to be kind, tolerant and accepting of others. The truth is, most of what I use on a day-to-day basis to do my job or to take care of my family, I taught myself in the years since I went to high school. But had I been left to fend for myself and taught that my differences made me a bad person, I can’t imagine I would have had the motivation and drive to achieve the successes that I’ve had.
To those who want to make this a budget issue: I’ll pay for it. Myself. Total up the most exorbitant, extravagant cost that you can imagine for the administration of the Coexist program or a Gay-Straight Alliance at East Pennsboro, and no matter what you think the price tag is, I’ll make sure it gets covered. This justification is now officially removed.
Tonight, your school board will make a decision about your club, but also about the culture and mindset of the community going forward. Judging by the wisdom you’ve already shown, there’s not much I can teach you about the world that you haven’t already figured out in high school. But I will share one lesson that I think might not be obvious.
Ms. Alger, Ms. Gaughen, Mr. Helm and Mr. Tyson aren’t your enemies. And they’re not motivated by hate. They’re just adults who’ve forgotten what it was like to have to struggle to discover who you are. Maybe they were fortunate enough that they didn’t even have to go through that struggle. It’s like someone who’s always had perfect vision not knowing why some of us feel so vulnerable when we don’t have our glasses or contact lenses around; They don’t know what it’s like to not be able to see the road ahead.
The thing I’ve learned in the years since I was at East Pennsboro is that sometimes adults need to learn from kids, and that sometimes educators and administrators have to learn lessons from students. So use the board meeting tonight, and the conversations going forward, to show the same compassion and forgiveness and understanding towards these adults as you would toward your peers.
I think the discipline and heart and passion you’ve shown for an important cause is going to make history tonight, and you’re going to make a real change in your community and in the world. I am so proud of what you have already done, and so inspired by the effort you’ve put in, that I am not sure I even have the words to do it justice. I’m optimistic about tonight’s school board decision, and even more optimistic about the incredibly bright futures you all have ahead of you.