I’ve been incredibly lucky in high school. I’ve been punched in the eye, tripped into lockers, and told that because I was gay, I should kill myself. Most would hear my story and instantly disagree that I’ve been lucky.
It’s true that I have been both verbally and physically assaulted over the last four years, but I am incredibly lucky for two reasons. One, because I survived. Two, because of the people who supported me during those traumatic times.
I had many wonderful teachers who helped save my life and make our school more accepting for students like me. They did this by making simple, kind statements that validated my identity, by asking time and time again about pronouns to ensure they were “doing it right,” by creating classes with inclusive curricula, and of course by offering to listen to all of the teenage angst that comes with high school.
A few caring teachers stand out, and one of those supportive people is my amazing and kind-hearted Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) advisor.
I had just come out as genderqueer and made it through the first long period of time where I hadn’t been physically attacked due to my queer identity. When I decided I wanted to wear a suit to my prom, I was terrified what may happen. A teacher who I had only seen passing in halls came over to the table where I was sitting during the dance and made a kind comment about my suit. That one comment may seem incredibly insignificant to other people, but it was incredibly important to me because it gave me an instant ally in the room.
Even if I didn’t know this teacher personally, I knew that there was someone in the room who wasn’t judging my choice in prom attire and someone who could be a friendly face if I started to panic. I made it through my prom night, incredibly thankful for those short, kind words that made the anxiety surrounding the night bearable, and I still remember that kind gesture over a year later.
A few months later, after summer break, I came back to school to find that the three supportive adults who were GSA advisors the year before had all left the school district. It was an instant sinking feeling in my stomach. Would this be the end of my short-lived safe feeling?
It wasn’t that I couldn’t find supportive teachers. By the time senior year had come around, I had a list of the people I knew were safe and caring people. The problem was that many teachers have no free time, no matter how much they cared for the cause, and they were unable to help the GSA. But our new GSA advisor took us in, no questions asked.
Every meeting, I would have an agenda prepared, and I would constantly end the meetings stressed that we hadn’t completed enough or that our goals would never be achievable. More than once, our GSA advisor would take an extra moment from her afternoon, after all the other club members had left, and she promised me, “It was going to be okay.” While providing us with much needed guidance at times, she was always amazingly honest with us when she wasn’t sure of a certain term, and I was always so honored that she was okay with learning from her students at times. She was always the first to correct herself and apologize when messing up my pronouns. And I’m not positive, but I have a feeling she was one of the people who helped some of my other teachers begin to catch on to “they” pronouns.
She provided not only me, but a dozen other students the idea that we had a safe room to go to at the end of a Monday afternoon, somewhere we could simply be whoever we needed to be, somewhere we knew we wouldn’t be able to escape without one good laugh. Even if our jokes are terrible, her laugh is infectious.
When explaining who our club advisor was, more than once, I got the instant response, “Oh, I love her! She’s so nice to everyone!” She is not only a great teacher who makes her LGBTQ students feel safe, but she is also loved and respected by most students in our school. Even if it’s through the smallest interactions, she is an amazing ally.
High school is never easy, and sometimes we get lucky to have one or two “life-altering” conversations that inspire us to get our lives on track, save us, or even just help us make sense of who we are. Those teachers who have those conversations still don’t get the recognition they deserve. However, I feel that at times the real under-sung heroes are those like my GSA advisor who act in “small” ways.
I was lucky enough to find multiple amazing teachers and even have a few “life-altering” and, at times, “life-saving” conversations, but one of the things I really appreciate is having someone who is so incredibly considerate, compassionate, and inspiring to continuously give me encouragement and hope along the way, to keep me from needing another one of those life-saving conversations.
Even the most basic, kind words can make a huge difference in someone’s life, and because of my teacher’s kind words starting at prom and continuing to this very day, I am inspired to try and be as impactful, helpful, and kind-hearted as she is.
Ev Norsworthy is a student with GLSEN Southern Maine.
Is there a supportive educator in your or your child’s life? Teacher Appreciation Week is May 8-12, and you can express your thanks by purchasing this bouquet – now 20% off with the code TEACH20. 10% of sales benefit GLSEN’s work to make schools LGBTQ-inclusive, including by providing educators like Ev’s GSA advisor the resources they need.