Society can break people. On the day I realized this, I was in a 6th grade classroom in Manhattan, Ks. It would be my first opportunity in life to look someone in the eyes and try to help them heal. I was a sparkly-eyed bilingual elementary education student teacher with dreams of changing the world in what I considered to be a diverse school. That’s when a 6th grade student, Francisco*, broke my heart.
The other students all filed out to the playground for recess with the lead teacher but as he often did, Francisco stayed behind to chat with me while I graded papers. Most of the time we’d chat a little in Spanish, his first language. He never wanted the other students to hear him speak Spanish, and insisted that everyone else call him Frank. I, however, was allowed to call him by his given name, “because it doesn’t sound ugly when you say it.”
This particular day he looked like he was hiding tears behind his smile.
“Miss, I don’t like being the only Mexican here,” he spoke softly.
I raised my eyes to his with a smile and asked, “Why not?”
“People here, they say bad things about Mexicans.” Tears welled and his long black lashes blinked them away. Francisco had recently moved from New Mexico where he’d lived in a predominantly Mexican- American community to a town in Kansas where he was, indeed, the only Hispanic kid in his grade.
“Francisco, let me tell you something. I want to be sure you hear me, because this is important.”
His eyes held mine so I continued with an earnest look, trying to hold back tears of my own, “Never be ashamed of who God made you to be. He made you special. It’s okay to be different, differences are to be embraced. Wouldn’t it be a boring world if we were all the same?”
“Yeah, but, no one else here speaks Spanish, and people look at us weird when my mom and I are at the store and she speaks to me in Spanish.”
With a smile to hide that my heart was breaking for him, I teased, “I speak Spanish. Am I no one?”
“But you are different, Miss. You like Mexicans.”
Really holding back the tears, I pressed on, “Francisco. You are special. I actually know very few people who can speak two languages, and that makes you MORE special than you apparently even know. Be PROUD that you can do that. Don’t hide it! Speak to your mom in Spanish in public and understand that the people who stare may just be jealous that you are smarter than they are.”
I said this last bit not exactly believing it, but wanting to. It was apparently enough for him though, because he lowered his eyes and said a quiet, “Thank you.”
“Now get on out to recess before you miss the whole thing,” I said cheerily. But as soon as he was out of the room, I lowered my head and cried. I cried for him, I cried for our narrow-minded ignorant society, I cried because I felt righteously angry, filled with a passion for changing the world, but not knowing how.
More than twelve years later, as a mom in her mid-30s, I keep reenacting that same conversation. This time I’m trying to find the words to help heal new friends. This time they are LGBT friends (yes, at least one of each of them!) I found that when speaking to people who our society treats unequally, people who are sometimes stared at and whispered about in public, that my words are continually echoing, “Never be ashamed of who God made you to be! YOU are special. It’s okay to be different, differences are to be embraced!”
However, when speaking these truths, that EVERY child should hear over and over, to people who are MUCH older than twelve and who have BELIEVED for SO long the negative things our society says about them, I see that it’s going to take more than just nice words from a straight, Spanish-speaking white woman to heal their pain. The words of love and acceptance spilling from my lips will only act as a soothing balm for an hour or two at best. The kind of healing they need, really, is going to take our society changing. For the first time since I stopped teaching to have a family of my own, I have found my passion again to change the world, starting with the children in my own community in Wichita, Ks. I will be their ally, their advocate and their mentor if needed. I will show kids how to embrace each other’s differences so that new generations can give hope to the ones who came before them. Will you join me in bringing GLSEN to our schools so that ALL kids can feel safe, respected and loved?
Hello everyone! My name is Ari Himber. I am the new Community Initiatives intern at the GLSEN New York City office. I am entering my sophomore year at Baruch College where I am currently pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Public Affairs. I intend to devote much of my career to education.
I am motivated to work for GLSEN because I have had a lot of experience with bullying and oppression. I was harassed in the Orthodox Jewish high school I attended for being queer and an atheist, as well as for my political views; many of my close friends were similarly oppressed. I was the first "out" student in my school, and I had issues with both students and faculty on occasion because of it.
However, it was not just my own experience with bullies that motivates me – it is the systematic silencing that LGBTQ people face in the American education system. We learn about Martin Luther King but not Bayard Rustin; we read "A Streetcar Named Desire" but do not discuss that Tennessee Williams was queer. Obviously, this does not apply to every teacher and school – but it is a pervasive, oppressive means of denying LGBTQ people the role models they may look up to. Not every school has a Gay-Straight Alliance, a guidance counselor who is trained to help LGBTQ students and faculty, or an administration that is willing to step in and put a stop to the explicit bullying queer students face daily.
I am working for GLSEN because I believe in its mission: that we must value and respect all people and their contributions, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. My work in the Community Initiatives department at GLSEN will help advance this mission by helping to map out the organization’s chapter-work calendar so that the organization can more proactively support chapter work nation-wide. I will also be working on the constituent engagement database and reviewing the new GLSEN website for organizational clarity and consistency.
As a new staff member I have had the pleasure of experiencing the grunt work that goes into making Day of Silence possible. Part of this work includes answering hundreds of participant inquiries as to why we use silence on this day of action. We have a standard answer to this question: “taking a vow of silence helps to call attention to the silencing effect of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools.” Standard answers are often not enough to satisfy participant curiosity. Part of the reason why our constituents take part in the Day of Silence is that this day is an empowering moment in what can sometimes feel like an oppressive society. To honor our participants experience I thought that sharing a more personal answer to the inquiry of why we commemorate this day with silence would be appropriate. On a personal level, I believe that silence is a gesture of respect. My silence is an expression of my admiration for every LGBT person who has ever engaged in organizing which has led to the rights I have today. If we think broadly, moments of silence commemorate important events, history and influential individuals. This year’s Day of Silence, we will be joined by youth, allies, school administrators, staff, chapter leaders, donors and supporters who recognize that observing a vow of silence in honor of LGBT events, history and individuals is essential in making strides toward creating safe schools for students and moreover a safe society for all.