Both my high school gym teachers died within the last year or so. Within a year or so of one another. I was surprised to learn from their obituaries that they were each only in their early to mid 70s. Which would have made them a whopping early 30s when I was a student in high school. I’m laughing because they seemed ancient to me then. They were like the proverbial little old ladies, ancient bordering on decrepit. They were two peas in a pod. I’m not sure either of them topped four feet tall, sporting almost identical bowl haircuts. They both had square, chunky builds and maintained a nun-like quality that instilled fear in the hearts of teenagers who might have been considering wrong-doing.
Their personalities though were different. Sally (not her real name) always appeared sunburnt and fresh from the outdoors. She was gregarious and laughed a lot. She had charisma and taught with her heart. She bought a house on the corner of the street (more like the driveway of the school) where the high school was the only other building. Everyone knew it was Miss R’s house. And many a summer evening one could find her sitting on her porch sipping lemonade. She lived and breathed for her students. We were, very clearly, the family of her heart. She hung sheets painted with congratulations or “we’ll get ’em next time” encouragement from trees in her front yard to greet buses of athletes returning from away games. Over the years those signs got more elaborate, creative and solid. And whether teams were returning at 7PM or midnight, her signs embraced them all and letting them know they were home. Sally was strict, but loving. She was kind and in her banter and cajoling were many a life lesson. Her energy and passion helped move her up the ranks through the years, from gym teacher to athletic director, eventually to dean of students and beyond. She was much beloved.
Gail (also not her real name) was quiet and reserved. She was extremely private and lived (no one knew where) far enough away from the school that she could maintain her existence without bumping into students at the grocery store. Without the charisma that Sally so naturally exuded, Gail was nurturing and kind in her own ways. She loved her students and had passion for the field to which she devoted her life. She wasn’t inspirational in a loud way, but had her quiet following who could be found most lunch periods, sitting in her office listening to her stories.
I don’t know if I ever really gave any conscious thought to whether Sally or Gail were lesbians. They were, like all the other educators, simply teachers to me. They didn’t have a life outside of the school as far as we knew or were concerned. What made me even consider whether they were gay was that they were butch-looking gym teachers. I came out in my freshman year at the tender age of 14. In some ways I would have killed for a role model. Though I’m not sure I would have wanted (even if they were out, which they were most certainly not) either of these two old-fogies as role models. Joan Armatrading would have been my choice as gym teacher slash role model if I could have chosen. These two pint-sized puritans didn’t have the makings of what it would have taken to be the kind of role model I needed either personally or athletically. Heck, I never saw either one of them actually engage in physical activity, never mind break a sweat or pick up a ball now that I think of it. Still, they were lovely human beings to be sure. As I have said countless times, I didn’t have role models. I have no idea how having a specific LGBTorQ role model would have affected my life. It is beyond my fathoming. I did the best I could with what I had.
As I have lived my life as a moderately out member of the LGBTQ community I have often thought back to my gym teachers, wondering occasionally if they were gay and whether they were happy or content or even very lonely. I imagine that for them being out and keeping a job in education was not an option. The cost of that limitation on their lives and the lives of students who were LGBTorQ is unfathomable. I don’t know that appreciating the sacrifice of their personal lives or hearts would have been recompense enough. Sometimes I get angry that they weren’t out. At least to those of us who were obviously struggling and coming out. Would it have killed either of them to have reached out? Would it have changed my life exponentially if they had reached out? Maybe. I don’t know. I guess I will never know the cost or benefit ratio.
Joita goes to a high school where not only are two of her gym teachers out lesbians, they are actually married to one another! And their children attended the daycare at the high school where they both work. They are both young and energetic and physically fit. They both not only coach sports teams, but play sports in their own lives, leading by example. And neither is very butch looking. They are, like all the other educators at the school, simply teachers, woven into the fabric of high school life. Joita and her peers seem to have no idea how extraordinary this is. This is just the norm to them and they understand it as their due. They expect no less from the educated liberal society into which they have been born.
Joita is planning to go into education as a career path. I realized the other day that she also doesn’t have a role model. While she may have teachers who are Indian, or teachers who are people of color and teachers who are Jewish or Muslim, or even adults she looks up to, she doesn’t have any teachers who are differently able like her. There are no teachers at the school who use crutches or a wheelchair or have any form of physical difference. Joita, like many of us, has had to forge a path for herself without the aid of those like her who have gone before her. She will (and is), whether she wants to or not, be a role model for others, for future generations of differently able people. I hope she is strong enough to be conscious of this role and responsibility without letting it be a burden. I hope she can own this status and revel in it. I hope she can withstand the scrutiny without giving up integrity. I hope for her that the knowledge and understanding that life is not measured by money or status or power, but by the lives we touch and those we inspire leads to a contented heart and meaningful life.