“Ms. Mathews, if I needed you to be an activist for me, would you do it?”
A student asked me this question just after the third day of school. I was taken aback by such a request so early in the year.
I started to ask a question to see exactly what the issue was.
It’s homecoming time.
My student wanted to be homecoming king.
Most high school teachers already know the pressures that come with homecoming. We see the elaborate dance proposals, the stress of finding money for a dress, preparation for themed spirit days and the popularity contest that most schools know as naming a homecoming king and queen. These are the focal points that take over the psyche of many high schoolers. This time, it was different.
It’s homecoming time.
My female student wanted to be homecoming king.
I wish I could pretend that I was completely prepared for the request of supporting her in this adventure, but I was not. Being an activist teacher means being placed in situations that will make many people uncomfortable because it goes against the status quo.
People would oppose her even thinking about running as homecoming king. Before I gave her my answer, I wanted to know who or what she thought would be her biggest opposition.
“My parents,” she said. “They will have major issues with me taking this stand, but I know that I am not a queen. They have problems with me being gay, but I still want to do this. I want to be king.”
I then told her that I would support her in any way that I could.
After voting was completed a week later, and the top 10 names were read over the P.A. system, I heard her name called for senior royalty. I figured that her decision would be a focal point of discussion with the student body the following day.
I was right.
I watched as her classmates talked to her about her decision and supported her in being herself. I realized then that, as much as adults want to categorize young people as lazy and uncaring, I saw something different. I watched as students showed empathy, compassion and genuine care for someone who wanted to stand up for what she believed was her right.
Many students told her to be who she wants to be and speak her truth; they said they would listen. It’s the same thing that she should expect from her teachers and other adults in her life. All she asked for was support and understanding.
That’s what she needed from me through this process.
Supporting my student meant me doing more listening than talking. She kept me updated with messages: her progress in revealing her plan to her parents, her desire to wear a tux instead of a dress and the coldness she was receiving from some of her peers. Many in the community disapproved of her decision and said so via social media and hateful messages that flooded her phone.
At the same time, I remained an open ear and kept an open door. I found friends in the LGBT community who agreed to send her words of encouragement. I explained to her that not everyone would share her view, but that her voice was important. For growth to happen in our community, change had to happen first. And, as I told her, “change is one of the most difficult things to ask a person to do or accept.”
Being her advocate also meant taking a public stance on the issue. While attending a voluntary meeting, I found myself speaking passionately to my colleagues. I talked about allowing children to decide who they want to represent them on the royal court and how we should be more supportive of our LGBT students. Some staff members reached out to me with messages and a desire for dialogue. Others began to avoid me. Once again, change is difficult, but I wanted to support my student in making this change in our school’s culture.
Days later, my student surprised me with another request.
“Ms. Mathews, would you walk next to me in the royal ceremony during halftime?”
I didn’t need to think of my answer to this question: “Of course I will. It would be my honor.”
Her father and I escorted her during halftime at the homecoming game. While she didn’t win homecoming king, she did something probably more significant: Her decision to run for homecoming king changed the dynamics of how we view LGBT students in our community. Homecoming voting changed from picking a girl and a boy to represent the student body to choosing two individuals who best represent the school community. This happened because of her.
It’s homecoming time.
My female student ran for homecoming king.
Mathews is an educator, award-winning writer, Red Cedar Writing Project and National Writing Project Fellow, and an environmental justice and institutional racism activist.