Being Honest About Past Intolerance


Trey loved to challenge whatever rule he could in class. He was the student who would question every nuance of the dress code, just to see if the faculty could come up with a worthy reason.

During a discussion of homophobia in The Catcher in the Rye, he, blurted, “Holden’s just so gay.”

The class groaned as they awaited my response.

“Just to clarify,” I asked, “do you mean you think he’s homosexual or did you mean something else?”

“Well… both,” and before I could respond, Trey took the conversation in an unexpected direction, “You know what I meant, Mr. Elliott, but I got a question. What did you say for something stupid when you were in high school? Was it ‘gay,’ ‘retarded,’ what?”

In that moment, I truly couldn’t remember what our slang had been, but my memories flashed back to high school and my friend, Jonathan. Jonathan was the first openly-gay student at my small, private high school in the early ‘90s.

He came out through an article in the local newspaper about high school students attending the university’s gay student group. His announcement in the paper sent shockwaves through our school, our community and a number of people, myself included.

I wanted to defend my friend from those who would attack him, but this was the first time I had ever known a gay person. Quite frankly, my past behavior with Jonathan embarrassed me. Jonathan was a couple of years older than me. He often gave me a ride home after school.

Vividly, I recalled one day when I spent most of the ride making gay jokes, and Jonathan smiled and laughed the whole time. In retrospect, I had no idea of the pain I had caused him. Ultimately, my shame made me more passionate as I verbally defended him with other students.

As teachers, we have to be honest with our students about our own journeys of self-discovery with regard to diversity. To do less is to suggest that one may simply flip a switch and become a perfect, respectful being. Adolescents, in particular, despise hypocrisy, especially in authority figures. If we aren’t honest about our past faults, we cannot teach well.

“I don’t remember what we said, Trey. I don’t think my generation had a go-to phrase. We weren’t saints. My high school wasn’t really all that accepting. We had one, out gay student and it was a rough time for everyone, including me.”

Reflecting on our past experiences with diversity, privilege and prejudice makes us not only better practitioners, but better people too.

Elliott is a high school English teacher in Texas.