This past weekend, I had the absolute pleasure of attending NCTE in St. Louis. I also had the absolute honor of being a part of a powerful presentation with incredible humans. Each one of us shared our personal story and then shared how we have been able to connect that personal story to our work as educators in order to do better for our students and for our teaching.
What our presentation reminded me is that there is such power in sharing our voices and our stories and our selves. Our whole selves. And I have not been doing a very good job of that on this blog this year. I have continued to share my work in my classroom, but I have quieted my voice as a gay educator. I suppose there have been many reasons. Perhaps because the world feels less safe. Perhaps because my own school has felt less safe. Perhaps just because I have been tired.
But this weekend reminded me of the power of sharing my voice. It reminded me that sharing our own stories not only helps others and helps our students, but sharing our own stories also helps us. To grow. To live fully. To be whole in this world.
So with that in mind, here is the story that I shared on Sunday…
I want to tell you a story.
This story takes place in 2012.
This story is about my wife, Carla, and I on our honeymoon in California. On the last night of our honeymoon, we checked into a bed and breakfast in Half Moon Bay, about 30 minutes outside of San Francisco. The next morning, we headed downstairs for breakfast and we saw two other people already standing in the dining room waiting to eat. After a moment, the woman walked over and said good morning and introduced herself and her husband.
I responded with a smile and then she looked at Carla and looked back at me and I will never forget the words that she uttered. “So”, she said, “are you traveling just you and your son?” There was a moment or two of silence as I tried to figure out what she could possibly mean. There were no children anywhere in the room. In fact, there were no other people in the room, at all, besides this woman and her husband and Carla and me. And with all that information in mind, it finally started to dawn on me. She thought Carla was my son.
How could this be? I wondered. How could she look at my wife and I and reasonably jump to the conclusion that we were mother and son? It didn’t make any sense to me.
Somehow. The moment passed. We moved on. But the moment didn’t really pass. It stuck with me for months. And for months I wondered how it could have happened. Until one day, I found myself again thinking about that moment and I suddenly remembered something I had learned back in undergrad. I remembered what the famous child psychologist, Jean Piaget, had to say about the way children acquire new language and understand new concepts.
What he found was that when children encounter something new, they try to match it with something that they already know. Piaget called the things that we already know, our schema. When children are not able to find something in their schema that matches the new thing they are encountering, they may try to match it with something that is close. This is called assimilation. So, for example, when a child sees a cow for the first time, she might not know the word and may try to match that new thing (in this case the cow) with something in her schema that is close. Something else that might be large, have four legs, and a tail. She might refer to this new thing as a horse because it is the closest thing that she has in her schema to a cow.
Now at this point in the story, it might sound like I am trying to equate my wife and I to horses and cows, but I am not.
What I do think, however, is that Piaget’s theories help to explain how this woman could have gotten my wife and I so very wrong.
I believe that when she saw us, she knew, somehow we were family. Maybe it was the way we stood or the way we spoke or the way we looked at each other. But the kind of family that we were, didn’t match any of the schemas she carried with her about family. We didn’t look like any of the images of family that she had ever been exposed to and had stored in her mind. So she tried, without realizing it, to match us to the closest schema that she could find. And the closest thing that she could come up with was mother and son.
Perhaps, this woman, who probably meant no ill intent, had such a narrow understanding of family and we just did not fit into it. So in a desperate attempt to match us to what she already knew, she ended up erasing who we really were. And she tried to shove us into her existing schema so that she felt comfortable, so that she experienced what Piaget referred to as equilibrium.
And then I also thought about all that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie told us in her brilliant TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” about how we are limited by the single stories that we are told about entire groups of people and about how we broaden our understanding of the world by broadening the range of the stories that we are exposed to.
And that led me to wonder. What would have happened if this same woman, maybe when she was a child in somebody’s classroom somewhere, had been shown a wider variety of images of what family meant? What if she had heard a wider variety of stories that helped her to understand the many ways that people could be a family? If she had carried a wider variety of images around with her in her schema would she have had an easier time seeing us for who we really were?
And if this wider variety of stories would have made a difference in how she interacted with us is it possible that a wider variety of stories can also make a difference in the way our own students go out into this world and interact with other humans?
I believe the answer to this is yes. I believe that it is not only possible, but that it is necessary for us, as teachers, to change the way our students interact with other humans by bringing a wide variety of stories about a wide variety of people into our classrooms. I believe that it is necessary that our students grow up knowing so many more stories than this one woman knew. And not just about gay people or about family. They need to hear a variety of stories about all of the people that we share this world with.
Because if there is any hope for this world, it lies in the hands of our students. And we need to arm them with the stories that will fight against the stereotyped messages that they are surrounded by. We need to arm them with the stories told by the people themselves who are living them. So let’s bring them more stories.
More stories about people who are Native.
More stories about people with disabilities.
More stories of people who are Muslim.
More stories of people who are Black.
And if we can do this. If we can bring in more stories and if we can create wider definitions of who people and groups of people are then our students will have such a variety of images stored in their minds and in their understandings that they will no longer be able to meet a human being and see them as only just one thing. They will no longer need to erase the person standing in front of them in order to shove that person into the narrow definitions that they carry inside. Instead, they will have to look at the human standing in front of them and see them, simply, for who they are.
And that is the kind of world that I want my own kid to grow up in. Because that is how this story ends.
Now my family looks like this. Now our daughter, Millie, is at the very center of our story. And every day I try desperately to make this world a better place so that she doesn’t have to grow up in a world where people carry narrow definitions of family that do not have space for her or for us.
It is the reason why every year, I come out all over again to a new group of students as I show them pictures of my wife and my daughter on the very first day of school. Every year, I still get nervous. Every year, I still wait for the phone to ring and for a parent to complain. But every year, I share my story with my students because that is just one more story for them to know. That is just one more step in fixing this very broken world that we are living in.