Four LGBT teens commit suicide in three weeks
Wake up call.
I keep getting these stories in my newsfeed. All these suicides, all these bullied queer kids. They are happening one after the other. I've had people try and tell me "it's not so bad for kids these days...times have changed." How many more kids need to die before this sick culture wakes up?That comment came from a (straight) reader of an early draft of my novel. He didn't buy that in Iowa, in the early 21st century, that a teenager would struggle this much with her sexuality. Okay, what about in California? Or Texas? Or New Jersey? Or Indiana?But you know what? This post isn't about my novel. All this "news" shakes me to the core; it isn't about my novel, and it's about the deepest source from which my novel springs.This fear. This fear of being known, being seen as different, being shunned for it. And what response can I have? Keep writing? Keep hoping that one day this novel will be a light and a solace for young adults? (At least that's what I pray it can be.)
I am too restless for that. I know that I have to sit alone in a room for 10,000 hours to master my craft, and I can be patient.Luckily, my day job is working with youth. Community college students. There is a big age range, but the median is 18-21. It's the age I love to teach the most--right when the Big Questions about life, society, identity come CRASHING into their brains, and I am happy to be the shepherd of these texts--Marx, bell hooks, Paulo Freire. I am unbelievably lucky to do this work.And Kushner. I used to teach Kushner (Lambda folks, I'll spare you my aside, but I think you know what I'm thinking). It was so important, and I got a few really heartfelt thank yous. But I also experienced a lot of personal discomfort from several students' obvious homophobia. I taught an article on gay marriage and had to endure hateful conversations--Student A (argument flailing, speaking to the class at large): "You know in your heart it's wrong!" Student B: "I don't know that, I don't know that in my heart!" Again, I try to have patience. Patience is important.
And the homophobes seem to be outnumbered.But I told myself--okay, for my own sake, I need to scale back on the gay talks. Because it would wreck me when I would hear the hate. It would awaken the trembling youth in me, hiding inside her baggy t-shirts, flannel shirts and Birkenstocks, dorky French Horn knocking against her knobby knees, eagerly exchanging notes with those BFFs. Ahh, the repressed love for the Oklahoma high school BFFs.
By some shot any of you are reading--don't worry, I'm over it. ;)But today, after the fourth suicide in three weeks (and the thing that isn't being said is that of course, this is just reportage
--this is a consistent, ongoing tragedy for LGBT youth) I am DONE being a "polite queer"--even, and perhaps especially, in the classroom.
I started wearing a rainbow button to work on my bag (well it says "GEEK" in rainbow letters--double outing) but I could do more to be more visible.I need to scale UP. I need to keep doing this work--the work that engages these central questions of identity. Yes, it's tough and dicey to talk about gender and sexuality. So I step up my game. It's worth it.
It doesn't mean I ignore the other topics, but this is urgent. This is close to my heart, and so I shied away. Because it is close to my heart, I must engage.
The LGBTQQI youth in my classrooms need these conversations like water. Fuck fear--the phobes need to deal. That's the only way we can change it. Fuck patiently waiting for privilege and bias and hate to unravel, year by year, generation by generation. This is life and death. And yet, the place where I tremble, where I hesitate: it's a cliche for a reason, but many of the "bulliers"--they might be struggling with their sexuality too. What is the right approach? Different for every age. By 18-21 I think I can safely say: get a grip, be respectful, be tolerant, maybe you have your own shit to figure out, but don't throw it on other people. EI would also like to add: While I appreciate at some level what Ellen did in her video, An Important Message from Ellen about Bullying
--it bugs me that she frames it as about bullying, not the dire consequences of harassment of LGBTQ teens. One could argue that the world sees Ellen, they know she's gay, she doesn't have to be explicit about the underlying message.Yes we do need to be explicit. To say or behave otherwise is to bend to a culture of hate, silence and invisibility.
Points if you know what band I'm riffing on for my blog post title. Bonus points for the album.
Can you tell I'm back in the classroom already? :)
On the other side of the desk, that is. The other week, I was a student again. And I was a sponge. There is so much to remark upon about Lambda
, so the task of chronicling it to people who weren't there seems overwhelming. I am also trying to consider my audience, and be aware that perhaps some of you dear readers may be my fellow comrades-in-arms, us Knights of the Pointy Table. (that was the nickname for the Fiction Fellows at Lambda) Maybe you had to be there.
But that is not a writer's excuse. Let me try, just try, to capture some of the magic that swirled around all week. Okay. So there were us Knights, the fiction fellows. And we got our asses kicked (in a great way) by each other, and by Nicola Griffith
, our fearless workshop leader. Then there were the poets, who were getting their asses kicked in a different way by having to write a new poem every damn day. And the non-fiction peeps were workshopping and writing new material...
Point is, we all worked hard. And we got to play hard too. Share meals with each other and bond over beer and wine and cigarette runs. (How did I shape-shift into a smoker for a week? I don't know, but I'm glad it's over. Gave the pack to my roomie...as soon as I got back. Okay, two days after I got back. I had a couple nostalgia smokes).
I have a composition book filled with notes. And I carried it with me wherever I went...from breakfast to class to useful lectures to late night beer around the courtyard tree where people would be dropping names of authors I couldn't believe I hadn't discovered yet, and couldn't wait to embrace. Embrace. All of them, all of you wily Lambda fellows. We were like some kind of Chia Community. It grew so damn fast! But unlike Chia, I do hope some of the bonds we made will continue to take root. Cuz Chia Pets, really? Kind of a dumb fad. The Lambda fellows? Felt like home.
And I'm psyched beyond belief to already see these seedlings sprouting with folks in my area, and through online connection to those I already miss like family. I know that word gets thrown around a lot in queer culture, and I could write all night about why and how it's usually awesome and what have you...but beyond this. Beyond the need for a chosen family, what about when you find yourself in the absolute rightest room of your life? What about when you feel like that family chose you? Queer writers. Lambda Fellows 2010. Knights of the Pointy Table. I'm getting almost jingoistic here for the Queer Nation. Honestly, yall, pass me a feather boa, the pom poms, and some tissue-- because after we kick ass I need to process.
And here's a shout-out to the woman who led the pointy-table charge: I linked to her blog above, but I'm going to praise her again here: Nicola Griffith. What was so immensely helpful about working with her was certainly the way she helped me think about my novel differently, and rewire my brain to narrative grammar, sensory detail, etc. etc. But ALSO--as a teacher myself, I was so inspired by how well she held that line between compassion and toughness. You have to do that. It's such a sign of respect towards your students to care about them enough to be rigorous, to be demanding, but still do it with a smile and warmth. I'd known how to do that...but not to the extent. And I'd been burning out as a teacher. So I was motivated to go to the other side of the desk again. The change feels huge in my classrooms now. AND her partner Kelley Eskridge
also kicks ass and gave the best, most inspiring lecture on the business and life of writing. I can't wait to read her novel.
Oh also? Learned a shit-ton about writing. Also? Felt my personal barriers about fears of risk dissolve as I read from my novel The Ella Verse at the end of the week
. Yes, I've slammed raw personal poems dozens of times. I can't explain it. This was transformative.
I also loved the fact that the genres mingled so freely with each other, teacher and student alike. (many of us are in fact "trans-genre"). Ellery Washington, the inspiring non-fiction teacher, was also wonderfully approachable and giving of his time and attention.
Final highlight: I hugged Ellen Bass, co-author of The Courage to Heal after my reading. Her book that helped me heal, helped take me to a place where I could write something like that. And then have it come back around. Won't forget that moment any time soon.
But there are more moments like these I could tell you about, leaking into three hour chicken and waffle post-retreat reverie time with Meg Day
and Billie Mandel, my Oakland Lambda homies. And coming down from the high...there are more moments to come.
And then there is coming back to the room. And getting to work.
I've made it a habit in recent semesters to perform my poem about teaching, "School of Thought" (accessible as an audio file under "Some Poems"...note to self to get the text up there) to my classes on the last day of class. They always love it, but I usually get the comment that's somewhere along the lines of: "Man you were holding out on us!" I think this is because my classroom persona and stage persona are pretty different. I've done the poem on the first day of class before but that felt like showboating, so I changed it. I had a student today though (who is about my age, and we developed a rapport and chatted after class several times this summer) who suggested I do that earlier. I do teach a spoken word poetry unit in my developmental writing classes and my literature classes. I've been using The Spoken Word Revolution Redux
, but this semester I am switching to Write Bloody's new Learn Then Burn
to get some fresh poems and check out their suggested lesson plans. Plus I know Write Bloody publishes really high quality spoken word poetry. Although I liked the other book because it comes with a CD, and the quality was great, too. I just want some new poems to dig into for my own sake, mostly, and wanna check out the hot new ticket! :)
At any rate, I think I'm going to present my poem ("School of Thought") somewhere in the poetry unit. It might be a useful and powerful thing to do in every class, and perhaps the last day is the wrong time, even though it's kind of a fun send-off.
This was a good group. I genuinely liked most of them, and they got a long, a good vibe. Doesn't always happen that way. It wasn't the *most* bonded chummy class I've had, but it was solid and fun.
Now I have three weeks "off..." Off to do other things really. Finish packing and moving. Reading and commenting on 300 pages of other Lambda fellows fiction for the workshop by August 8. Excited by that, but a bit daunted.
I got a sublet at the San Francisco Writer's Grotto
for the next couple of weeks where I plan to get much of this reading done, my own writing, and planning for the fall semester. I feel very blessed to get to do the Lambda Retreat/Workshop. And I am lucky to do a job that I enjoy most of the time. Still, I need to schedule in a day at the beach or hiking or something in the next couple of weeks! This "time off" idea is a bit misleading. I mean Lambda will be fun, and it doesn't FEEL like work, but there is something to be said for like, actual vacations. There will be the weekend before in LA. Make time for days full of just fun and relaxing. Second note to self.
I decided to cut down my classload from four to three this fall to make more room for my writing, developing my writing career, and other creative projects. It'll make money a bit tighter--loans still in deferment--but I think it's worth it. I can always go back to four in the spring if I want more cash.
Freeway flyers (or anyone else really) who may be reading this, please feel free to comment on my scheduling dilemma:
What would you do?--
option A: have tuesdays and thursdays "free" and work-from-home flexible, but make wednesday ridiculously long and full of driving
option B: have commitments M-Th, but Wed afternoon and TTh mornings free