- by Chett Pritchett, Intermin Executive Director of Methodist Federation for Social Action -
This week I learned of the passing of my high school English teacher. Edee had started teaching English in the 1960s. By the time I reached her classroom in 1993 she was a seasoned educator, and by the time she retired she had seen three generations of families sit in her classroom. Edee was one-of-a-kind; her quirkiness influenced her pedagogy (when we watched “Excalibur” our senior year she expertly covered the screen with a piece of cardboard during a momentary flash of nudity). Weekly vocabulary quizzes prepared us for college entrance exams, author presentations taught us how to work cooperatively with our classmates, and at the end of each year the graduating seniors got to sign the wall of her bright and colorful classroom.
What Edee taught me, however, was never part of the proscribed curriculum. Edee was the first person I’d ever heard referred to as a lesbian. To this day, I’m not sure she ever identified in such a way. But small town rumor mills have a way of influencing of reputation. As a gay teenager struggling with my own sexuality, I confess I added to the rumor mill whose machinations create a slippery slope toward bullying.
As teachers and students are heading back to school this fall, I’m reminded of the sacrifice made by queer educators. For some it is a professional glass ceiling; for others, especially those in small towns, it is a decision to live in personal closet in order to negate questions, bullying by students and parents, and shunning by colleagues.
Edee, however, never let rumors bother her – at least she never showed they did. She was insightful and her classroom became a sanctuary for me. Perhaps it was my term paper on The Beatles’ influence on American culture and my emphasis on Brian Epstein’s sexual orientation, or maybe my love of Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, but Edee made subtle gestures to let me know her class was a safe space.
I can’t help but wonder about other Edee’s whom each of us know: teachers, pastors, or quiet neighbors who have lived closeted lives or who were wounded by rumors and presumptions. So many times I hear, “But we don’t know any homosexuals…” The fact is, we do. We need only open our eyes and our hearts to those in our classrooms and in our pews, and, like Edee, extend a gesture of welcome and safety.
Farewell, my friend and teacher. Yours was a life lived with joy and hope – and you modeled that life for so many of your students.
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Chett Pritchett serves as Interim Executive Director of the Methodist Federation for Social Action. He is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College and Wesley Theological Seminary. An advocate for LGBTQ equality in the Church, Chett has presented numerous workshops on spirituality and sexuality. He lives in Washington, DC and an active member at Dumbarton United Methodist Church.