Middle school is weird. It was awkward as hell when I was a hormonal, monstrous, uncertain twelve-year-old, and only slightly less so when I went back to teach English. So when I found myself, a 23-year-old rookie teacher, standing in a cafeteria fielding a question about how lesbian sex works from a seventh grader, I can’t say I had any right to be surprised. I was, however, overwhelmed, mortified, and filled with regret that I’d gotten myself into this situation. I mumbled some non-response and ran to seek the counsel of the Assistant Principal — a faux-hawked, married lesbian who I was sure would have some wisdom on the matter.
It was a valuable early-career lesson. Middle school brains are wired to test rules and boundaries, meaning that sharing any personal information, especially about your love life, can open the door to further questions that quickly cross the line to inappropriate. As the adult, it’s on you to set the requisite boundaries. So when students ask questions like “Miss, do you have a husband?” — the query that started the cafeteria saga — some calculations are in order. You’ve got to ask yourself: how do I share enough about my personal life to build a trusting, human relationship with my students, but maintain enough distance to make it clear that I’m their teacher, not their friend?
This balancing act applies to all teachers. (Just ask my colleague, whose recent pregnancy inspired an avalanche of questions ranging from innocently curious to “oh lord where did you get that wildly false information?!”)
If you’re queer, there’s a unique set of additional calculations when answering personal questions: Will my honest answer make this student lose respect for me? Will their parent storm the main office demanding they be removed from my class? But if I’m not fully honest, will this student lose a valuable learning moment or opportunity for a mentor?
This tension remained constant throughout my five years in the classroom. But I realized quickly after that first year that I needed to develop a more formal teaching style. The friendliness and idealism that led me to answer the husband question honestly in the cafeteria, telling the student I had a girlfriend, was part of a larger issue: my students saw me as a friend, not an authority figure. I’d cultivated this dynamic semi-consciously, as an attempt to avoid contributing to the fucked-up trend of white teachers using authoritarian tactics to manage their classes of Black and brown students. But I’d swung too far the other way — I was too open, too loose, and my students’ learning was suffering because of it.
And so, under the pressure of high-stakes testing, the clumsy politics of “urban education reform,” and class sizes of 30+ students, I adjusted course. I became stricter and more formal. I started responding to the husband question by smiling, pointing to my unadorned ring finger, and changing the subject to schoolwork. And it helped – my classroom was calmer, more focused, and more conducive to academic learning.
But the problem with creating this distance, by default allowing students to assume I was straight was… all the students assumed I was straight. I’d solved for one extreme of the friendly-strict balance, but I worried I was missing opportunities to mentor and teach into an important part of my identity.
So, like a true English teacher, I turned to books. I was lucky to be at a school with a flexible curriculum, so I packed my lessons and book bins with queer stories written for young people. We read Fat Angie by E.E. Charlton-Trujillo in an advanced reading group, while another group dove into George by Alex Gino. Together, we read excerpts from I Am Jazz by Jazz Jennings. These led to conversations about gendered pronouns, being true to yourself, and queer love. Exchanges like this would happen between students:
Student 1: “I think George did that because he – wait, should I say he or she?”
Student 2: “George knows that she’s a ‘she,’ so that’s what you should say.”
This was a big moment for Student 1, who, a week prior, couldn’t hear the word “transgender” without compulsively hissing “ewww, that’s nasty.”
Another student came out to his advisory group after reading George, saying he felt comfortable doing so because George had a friend who supported her.
And then there was the blessing known as independent reading time. The extremely gay-looking covers of books like Tomboy by Liz Prince and Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard could do the bulk of the coming out for me (I know you’re straight, Liz, but thanks for the representation all the same).
I discovered all I had to do was read one of these books from my perch at the front of the classroom, and the queer or questioning students would come to me. One of the closest relationships I had with a student started when I had my face buried in Girl Mans Up. Her eyes widened as she took in the cover art: an illustration of a butch lady leaning against a wall in a super gay way.
“Miss,” she stage-whispered. (Middle schoolers are very bad at whispering. One benefit of my sterner classroom demeanor, though, is that kids now at least tried to whisper when it was quiet time.) “Miss, I need to borrow that book.”
I see you, I thought.
“Sure, when I’m done,” I said.
She came to me for advice a few weeks later, when several friends were icing her out after she expressed a crush on another girl. I came out to her shortly after, over lunch in my classroom. Four years after the chaos of responding “no, I have a girlfriend” to that boy in the cafeteria, I was saying the same thing to another student, but with much more intention behind it.
These relationships make me wonder what my coming out journey would’ve been like if I’d known any queer adults when I was in middle school. Or if seventh-grade me had found, in books, words for the feelings I wouldn’t admit I had. Maybe I would’ve recognized my high-school crush on my friend’s older sister for what it was? Maybe I would’ve had the ovaries to be honest with myself and my then-boyfriend when I was nineteen about wanting to date women instead?
These what-ifs are impossible to know. What I do know is the authors who wrote all the books I mentioned (and others) have helped make middle school a little less shitty for at least a few kids, and that’s pretty fucking rad.