By Gail Collins-Ranadive
WHAT FIFTH-GRADERS LEARN FROM GOOD TEACHERS
I sit in the back of the class of fifth graders. We are all on the floor, listening to Mr. S explain the topography of the Grand Canyon. We recently spent two days there on a field trip; I went along as writer-in-residence.
Now it is after lunch. Like me, many of the children (the other introverts?) need a nap to keep from nodding off. At some point in this mental stupor, it comes to me: it does not matter one whit what Mr. S teaches these children about any topic. What they will always remember is his kindness, his concern for each of them, his firmness in demanding the best each child has to offer, his absolute dedication to his profession, and all that it means to activate and influence these young minds. That he is also a gay man in a partnered relationship is irrelevant to anyone in this room.
After all, the kids have met his partner, and his dog, and are fond of both. It is simply not an issue. It is also no longer an issue in the state of Nevada. Yesterday, before leaving for a hike out in the Callville Wash, I examined the framed certificate of Domestic Partnership on display in the home they share. At some point I will officiate at their formal commitment ceremony, and I am delighted for both of them. So is the partner’s Latino family.
Not so much Mr. S’s family of origin: they are Mormons, and their scripture condemns his relationship as an abomination. While they too adore his partner, the fact that Nevada has issued a certificate of partnership, for them, set up a conflict between two important authorities: sacred and secular. His brothers congratulated the couple upon the announcement and seemed to be happy about the legalized partnership. His sisters simply left the room, one sobbing.
It is a challenge being the different, difficult outlier in any situation, especially in the family. So my heart hurts for this beloved teacher and his partner. We unpack his family’s reaction on our long hike through earth’s layers of deep time.
Tall and strapping strong, Mr. S carries a backpack containing the extra water, the lunch he has prepared, fruit, the sweet and salty snacks, plus the hiking poles for his partner who is busily taking pictures from a tripod. He hefts the dog over strewn boulders as we talk about his brothers and sisters. I suggest their response reflects the difference between male and female brain structure and socialization. Men can and do compartmentalize the many aspects of their lives. Family goes here, work over there, and religious beliefs go elsewhere.
Women, on the other hand, tend to perceive the world as a whole, with everything interconnected: if you change a perception in one area, it affects all the other areas simultaneously and sets up a disorienting disconnect until you can re-integrate all the parts.
The slot canyon walls loom high above us. The sliver of sky is darkening with clouds, and we definitely do not want to get caught in this wash during a flash flood. Trees smashed to sticks caught in the crevices attest to the power of the water.
Hiking back to the jeep, these two men, epitomizing the sanctity of personal integrity, take turns helping me haul out a slab of pale green rock. And suddenly my heart hurts for anyone who has compromised personal truth in order to please and appease the expectations of others, for everyone who has denied or defied who they really are and what they are meant to be and do. They are truly lost souls.
Stumbling a bit under the weight of the tablet, we joke about what new commandment might be inscribed upon the flat surface of this stone. What emergent wisdom might carry humans forward rather than keep us all mired in the past?
Perhaps we would take it into school and ask the children.