Scattered across the cinderblocks of our middle school walls are some new faces, photographs of kids who have been silenced.
They are dead.
Each of these young people experienced bullying that devastated them, that killed them. We can Google any of their names, swallow their stories, gulp their pain.
My mind flips to those in my school perceived as too girly (called “gay”), or whose voices are too low (called “dykes”), or those whose athletic skills are too meek (called “fags”). I think of those who wear the “wrong” kinds of shirt or jeans or tennis shoes, or who have the “wrong” kind of walk.
Today, on the National Day of Silence, hundreds of thousands of students nationwide will observe some sort of vow of silence to bring attention to anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying, and harassment in their schools.
Many of my students will join this protest. They will nod their heads, use other body language, scribble notes. The hope is that, in this quietude, students will reflect on the humiliation that lesbians, gays and bisexuals (or those who are thought to be) face at the hands of their classmates.
They will consider the impact of words that so many hurl recklessly. You’re so gay. That’s so gay. Dyke. What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you act normal? Why are you such a girl?
This afternoon, students shared how just last week, in a park about a mile from our school, a sixth-grader taunted another for behavior perceived as effeminate. The students said the victim even had feces hurled at him.
“What did you do when you heard that had happened,” I asked them.
“Well, we were going to do something, but…”
But. There is that word. What stopped you? What stops us all?
We all know the targets in our schools.
One has a hole in the underarm of his shirt. One has hair that looks like it might not have been washed since last Saturday. One has a lisp. We watch students giggle. We maybe tell them to stop. We move on, back to the lesson, back to the plan.
I pass those photographs on our cinderblock walls again, on my way to the bathroom between classes.
Could I have helped Scotty Weaver?
Would I even have heard Lee Simpson’s cries? If I heard, would I have listened? Would I have acted? How? When? Soon enough?
In contrast to the silence, today, I will speak loudly in my classroom. I will speak about Charles Howard, a teenager from Maine, harassed for being gay. The last words that Howard heard, before being tossed like litter over the State Street Bridge into the Kenduskeag Stream, were anti-gay epithets. “I can’t swim,” he pleaded.
In my classroom, we will hear Mark Doty read the poem he wrote, Charlie Howard’s Descent, inspired by this travesty. We will pose questions, consider what Doty means when he writes, “I imagine he took the insults in and made of them a place to live…”
Then students will write their own pieces, perhaps about silence or homophobia or injustice.
I expect that they will be powerful.
But ultimately, we need a day of silence to be part of a plan, not the plan, if we want to save the Charlie Howards in our classrooms.
Perhaps part of the answer rests in the student-driven bullying curriculum offered in this school in Brooklyn.
Whatever the full answer is, we must build a climate in which students and teachers are vociferous, never silent, in their objections to belittlement. In such a climate, teachers will always be able to display books with gays and lesbian themes without fear of repercussion, and “We were going to do something, but…” will never be an excuse.
We owe Lee and Scotty and Lawrence and Carl and Charlie Howard more than a single day of silence on one Friday in April.
Baker is a middle school language arts teacher in Missouri.