A decade or so ago ago, I was teaching in an all female, Catholic high school. A few weeks before graduation, two female students were caught kissing in the bathroom. One student, Marla, was a current student of mine. The other, Diane, I had taught a few years before. Both were very good, serious students, and had never been in any trouble that I know of. Diane was the introvert, and Marla the extrovert.
Since the bathroom was just down from my room, the teacher who caught them, and the principal, brought them to my room, the nearest room. I had the period free. The discomfort of the other teacher and the principal, both nuns, was almost tangible. As was their hostility. They alternated between bursts of anger, threats of humiliation, and awkward silences punctuated by glares at the students. Marla and Diane were stoic, silent, outwardly impassive.
I too remained a silent observer. But I knew this could not go on like this. I felt like we were made of brittle crystal, and one more high C would shatter us.
I finally asked them, ‘Would you like me to handle this?’ I asked this because another question silently occurred to me – Why did the adults choose my room? Indeed, why me? The principal’s office was at the end of the hall, and the other teacher’s room was catty-corner from me. In any case, everyone seemed relieved that I asked. From this moment on, the other two adults never involved themselves in the matter. Indeed, they never even asked about it. They just left.
Then I said three things to my students before our conversation, a conversation that, in truth, would continue for the rest of the year. First, I assured them that, ‘No matter what you tell me, I will accept it.’ Secondly, I assured them that, no matter what, ‘I will continue to be your teacher.’
It is worth noting also that I ever so briefly explained to them that, while I am not bound by confidentiality, ‘you know, like your priest in confession’, I will ‘let personal stuff stay personal stuff.’
I remember Marla’s blue eyes flashing, then darting between me and Diane as she asked, “You mean like you’d get me help if I said I ate some pills, but you’d pretty much just listen if I said I like French kissing?”
‘Yea, that’s pretty much it.’
Marla and Diane gazed at me intently. I am absolutely sure that they were judging whether or not if it was safe to let me into their world. There was a pause, then an audible exhale. The relief was felt by all three of us. I also feel sure that their trust rested upon the fact that our relationship was healthy in that, among other things, I had never shamed them.
Following this, I actually said very little. That I would accept them, that I would not get angry, that I would not shame them, that I would continue my relationship with them, this seemed to be all they really needed to know.
That first day they confided how they were more worried about the reaction of the teachers than the students. Apparently the students already knew of their affair. They told me of their dreams of getting married. Having kids. A house. Over the years, I have become accustomed to the fact that kids often do not want advice: they just want someone to listen. I tell my student teachers, ‘Sometimes the kids just want to leave something on your desk. They really don’t want you to pick it up and grade it.’ This was such a case.
Over the next few weeks, there were a number of similar conversations. My only interjections were to occasionally focus on the here-and-now. Once, for example, they spoke of moving to another state in order to get married. “Today. Right after school.” I reminded them that senior finals were in just a couple of weeks. I also reminded them that “The Big Plan”, their term, was to finish high school, go to the state university together (they had been accepted to the same university), live together then get married.
But most of the time I just listened. Often, they showed great insight. Once Diane said, “We’re teenagers. We’re supposed to be experimenting with sex! It’s like our job. Why is everyone so shocked?” Other times, their dreams were the dreams of young people everywhere. I felt at this point that possibly, just possibly, Marla and Diane were beginning to settle into a stable sense of sexual identity, this as opposed to being shamed into role confusion. I also felt that they were developing the skills of intimacy, and that this hopefully would spare them the pain of isolation so often felt by homosexuals and bisexuals.
They graduated from high school. They went off to the university. Their romance did not last very long. But they remain close friends to this day. And they learned that love is possible. I do not want to portray myself as a saint. But I like to think that I, their teacher, helped a little with all of that.