“Sometimes,” said my student, “I hate this school.” It was first period Monday; she stood at the back of the classroom facing me, looking at the backs of all the students between us. She was alone and looked vulnerable. She was talking about the experience of having a close friend beaten up, seeing him lying on the ground being kicked in the head while other students stood on cafeteria tables and cheered and tried to get a better view. Her friend was gay. I knew the kid who beat him up: I had thrown him out of a Math class last year for his homophobic remarks. I tried to think of something to say in response, something wise, something consoling, and nothing came to me. Instead I remembered the student who told me last semester in a letter that she was lesbian and said, “If other students found out, I don't think I could go on.” And I wondered how much more terrified she must feel now. I stood there looking at my World Religions' class, and I felt like an actor in a spotlight who has utterly forgotten his lines.
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil”, said Goethe, “is for the good people to do nothing.” I am here today, I exist, because at times in my family's recent past the good people did not do nothing. When the Nuremberg laws were passed and Jews in Germany could no longer employ Christians, the man who had been my grandparents’ gardener left to become Hitler's gardener, and my grandparents were fed by him through 1939 and 1940 on vegetables grown in Hitler's garden. They were able to escape from Germany because of the bravery of people like him, and like Maria, their maid, who faced the Gestapo on Kristallnacht, and said, “These are good people who have never done anything to hurt you. Why are you here?” And she shamed the Gestapo into leaving my grandparents untouched. I heard of their butcher who broke the laws of 1940 to provide them with a beef tongue they ate on their rail journey out of Germany, across Siberia in winter, and eventually to freedom in the US.
Others saved my mother, helping her to get to England. They saved an uncle by getting him out of Dachau. They saved my father by enabling him to stay in England, and not be sent back to Austria after it had been annexed by the Nazis. But there were others. And there are relatives I will never know, who whisper from the truncated limbs on my family tree of good people who did not do enough to help, or who were silent.
Nor is this just history of my parents and grandparents. There were good people who helped me when I was chased home from school in small town Quebec by kids screaming I had killed Jesus. And I know too many of us in this world are at some time condemned for something over which we have no control, something that at other times, in healthier places would not even be an issue, let alone a crime. Perhaps it is as trivial as wearing, or not wearing a scarf. Maybe our skin is too dark, or our hair too red. But I also know that we all are faced with moments when we have to make a choice. Either we do nothing, or we do something. And for me, that classroom was such a moment.
Over the next week I talked to students and staff, friends of the boy who was assaulted, other people who were sympathetic, and I created an after-school group, AHA!, the Anti-Homophobic Alliance. I put day-glo pink stickers up all over the school, announcing our first meeting. The stickers were vandalized, (as I had expected) so I ran announcements mocking that cowardice and cruelty and challenged people to stand up against it by coming to the meeting. On the afternoon of our meeting, there were a lot of curious onlookers in the hall waiting to see who showed up. The first group was the entire senior football team, some of whom were close friends of the boy who had been beaten up, and whom I had invited to attend the first meeting. There were no mocking comments when they marched in.
AHA! was a success. We put on a play, "Removing the Glove", a thinly veiled allegory about a world in which left-handers are persecuted by right handers. The teachers brought their English classes to it, and loved the page of activities we offered for classroom followup. The students loved the humour: the hero's father says, "I'd always hoped he'd be a quarterback, but who would want to catch a ball thrown with someone’s left-hand?" His ex-girlfriend says, "How could I hold his hand when all the time he'd be thinking of using his left hand?"
It wasn't enough. Two years later a lovely young Sikh boy killed himself, because he was gay and didn't believe he could change that. He was sure his community would never accept him as gay. Partially in response to that, our school board passed a policy condemning "heterosexism", the privileging of heterosexuality over homosexuality. Having the official policy behind me made the fight easier in the classroom; I wasn't just some weirdo, I was some weirdo representing official school board policy. I managed, with help from some stalwart allies, to set up the Triangle Bulletin Board, on which GLBT students could anonymously share their stories and support one another. And as Peel was at that time the largest school board in Canada, there were a lot of students who had stories to share.
Because I was doing this work in Clarkson, students would come out to me. Dean was a shy boy in my gifted English class, who for three years would write me heartrendingly beautiful letters, about five single-spaced pages at a time, about his utter loneliness and despair. I was terrified that he too might kill himself, and I knew there weren't any simple answers to his pain. But I was able to sit with him with the questions, and empathize with what he was going through, and it was enough. Now, two decades later, I see lovely pictures of him and his partner on Facebook, and I feel a tiny thrill of pride that I was part of helping him get there.
I was lucky, of course. This was during the years that Canada came to legalize gay-marriage, so the times were right for the issue to be fought. Because I was married, it was safer and easier for me to publicly fight this issue than it was for the gay or lesbian staff in the school. But it would have been easier yet to do nothing, and I didn't. The Talmud has a favourite saying, “You may not complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” And I did something.