In this post I’m going to write first about a mistake that a new TFAer in Minnesota made and then about a related, and even bigger mistake that I made during my fourth year. His mistake is not one that I’m blaming on anybody, not him, and not TFA, but it is something that made me think, and when I think, I like to write about it.
The ‘mistake’ on the table is the decision as written about on the TFA Pass The Chalk blog of Blair Mishleau to reveal that he is gay to his classes after a student declared that he hated gay people. The blog post is open and honest and definitely explores the dilemma that Blair faced in trying to figure out how to respond. He chose to go for the “teachable moment” and come out to his classes. Whether this mistake is one that will ‘break’ him, I can’t say. Maybe it won’t. Maybe the risk will pay off and it might be the most important thing that his students learn, even if it is subconsciously, this year. It won’t be on any state test, but to witness bravery like that might make an impact on those students.
But from a teaching point of view, it was the wrong choice. For one thing, this was just a few weeks into his first year of teaching. I can see if a teacher has been at a school for four years and knows his students very well and then revealing this, but in this case he prefaced it by first saying “You guys are my friends, right?” I always advise new teachers to not use the word “guys” — it is a little weak, I think. And I forbid new teachers from using the word “friends” in this context. So there was already a bit of a boundary issue, I think.
I don’t think a new teacher should tell his class that he is gay. I also don’t think a new teacher should tell his class he is hetero. I think that it is better that students don’t think of their teachers as having sexual preference at all. I don’t think young teachers should talk about their boyfriends or girlfriends. My first years of teaching I never mentioned my Canadian girlfriend. In my second year of teaching one of the girls in my class asked me if I was married and I looked her right in the eye and said “I don’t know.” This was not the best thing to say. She was pretty confused since this was a student I knew pretty well, but that’s what I said and she got the point. Now I’m a 42 year old father of two kids (43 this Sunday!) and I sometimes talk in class about something one of my kids said or did. I remember some of my teachers doing that from time to time when I was in school, and as a student I never minded it. But still, in the back of my mind, I think that this is a mistake since the existence of my kids at least suggests that they weren’t delivered by the stork.
So here is the mistake that I made, a story I never wrote about before, but it is one that was memorable for me:
Like most TFAers, I shared a house with another TFAer. David was a great friend who was, unlike me, very organized. Well, one Saturday I was going over to school to meet some students for a field trip to The University of Houston. On my way to school I realized that I had left the permission slips on the kitchen counter. When I got back to the house, the permission slips were not where I left them, and David was missing too. I had a feeling that both were together. I drove back to the school and got on the bus and saw all my students holding their permission slips which David obviously hand-delivered. My students immediately started asking, “Who was that guy?” David had apparently gotten on the bus and told my students “Mr. Rubinstein is on his way,” gave them the permission slips and left.
At that time, I didn’t feel comfortable telling my students that I had a housemate. I had a thing about keeping my life details secret. I liked to portray myself as an anti-social robot who only thought about math. As an extreme example, my father once came to visit me in Houston and I brought him to the high school football game — I went to all the games with a core group of teachers, but I had my father sit a few rows away from me because I didn’t want my students to see me with my ‘daddy.’ It was going to be too complicated to explain that I was just 24 years old and that I shared a house with a friend. Not knowing what to say, I did something very stupid. I tried to avoid answering the question by saying, as sarcastically as possible, “he’s my boyfriend.” I guess I was more comfortable with them thinking that I might be gay than knowing for sure that I shared a house with someone.
The immediate reaction was a bunch of kids hooting and one student named Damon repeating “He’s serious. He’s serious.” I knew not to deny it, so I just refused to answer any more questions about it. There wasn’t any aftermath that I can recall, but still it is something I still regret. With so many day to day decisions that a teacher has to make, it is tough to make the right choice on all of them.
Damon is now about 36 years old and is a minister in Houston. I last saw him about five years ago when I was in Houston for a math conference. I met up with him and a few other students for a small reunion. Maybe because he was a minister now, I felt I needed to make a confession. Nearly twenty years after the fact I told him that that guy was a teacher who I shared a house with. We then had a good laugh about it.