This piece was written as a contribution to Rory Gallagher‘s “Who I am, What I do” teachers’ personal testimony blog.
My path to the classroom started for me on the impossibly isolated South Island of New Zealand. It’s a story of how I was saved by literature and my brother. Memories of my early childhood are suffused with the sound of wind whistling through power lines, the vertiginous, ubiquitous presence of the vast Pacific horizon and a deep sense of isolation. I had always felt separate. I cultivated many personal beliefs to make sense of this, circumstances that I recruited to explain to myself why, to everyone’s bafflement, I didn’t want to be an All-Black. My parents had long since separated – unusual in the 1970s. I was so-called intelligent, I preferred reading to digging in the garden and I was terrified of climbing trees – a terror only eclipsed by terror of my peers, the kids in my neighbourhood and at my school against whom my ‘otherness’ was put into the sharpest of relief. I spent too much time in my bedroom. I was not engaged by team sport – I was never bad at sport really, just bad at fitting in. The closer I had to come into contact with kids my age the more deeply alienated I felt. I simply didn’t understand how they operated. On Saturdays I sailed a yacht on that wide sea. I threw ‘like a girl’ and liked listening to Kate Bush. The neighbour’s son, mowing the lawn, acres of it, made me catch my breath.
This was the 1970s, we wore shorts all year, had permanently peeling noses and homework consisted more of making stuff than writing. Everybody read, all the time. There was only one television channel and most of the content was imported, distant, dis-connected from the life in front of me. Most of the money I earned on my paper round was spent on batteries, secretly bought from the local shop, for my torch so I could keep reading under the covers, after lights-out. 35 years later I can recall vividly my mortal terror of Shelob. My mum remarried – a dentist – our names were changed to stitch up our re-constituted family, much like the billiard pockets she’d crocheted at night for money in poorer times. Step-brothers came and went. Grandparents, struggling to adjust, vied for sovereignty over one offspring or another. My polo-necked woollen jerseys itched a lot. I learned to hold my ground, argue my case. Mum let me do pottery classes as a hasty embarrassed compromise when I told her I was interested in ballet. I made her a lop-sided mug.
The city’s prestigious all boys’ secondary school – the one up on the hill in all of its neo-gothic grandeur (this is New Zealand, nothing human-made is actually old) – decided to cash in one of its rare ‘out-of-zone’ chips and offered me a place. There I was, in my unaccustomed suit and tie, sitting in a room with 30 other bewildered boys being told that we represented the ‘cream of society’ and just how much we had to be thankful for. We were expected to achieve at the highest levels. Our class was kept on a separate timetable to the other boys. Our marked work was handed back to us from bottom to top. Anything less than an 85% Mastery grade would mean doing it again.
And so it was, at the age of 13, I was outed by a teacher: according to him, on no uncertain terms, I was a faggot (Oh, how strongly, even now, I desire to wrap that word safely in quotation marks). There was no-one in my life who I could look to as a model of what a homosexual was meant to be. In those days homosexuality was a crime; most of us didn’t even really know what it was. No matter, my school and my society could teach me what I was, how to view myself.
I was treated with disdain, disgust and outright hatred. Sure, I was spat on, punched, tripped, made to prostrate and humiliate myself, made a scapegoat, jeered at, had my work defaced – stolen only to find it strewn in the school urinals… But it wasn’t this that truly did the harm. What remains with me now is the unspoken distancing I experienced. People steered clear. I existed within my own untouchable bubble. I was the only one of me. I learned to step out of myself and watch everything from a critical distance. I became self-conscious. Aware of my every gay movement, gesture, sound. I raised an abstract screen around myself. I predicted every situation and person and reaction. I schooled myself in a brittle disinterested disdain; there was no point fighting. Who would care? Why tell a teacher of actions taken by students when the teacher was present when it occurred. He had eyes of his own. I only ‘brought it on myself’, as one of them said to my concerned mother.
While all this went on, I spoke of it to no-one. My younger brother, though, watched it all. Never a talker, he took action instead. He would go to our city public library, the one by the statue of Robbie Burns, armed with his citizen’s library card and the purest, gentlest heart and take out books for me to read. To this day I don’t know how he figured it out, but he would borrow books by gay authors or on gay subjects. Ones that flew under the radar with innocuous names like “The Swimming Pool Library” became my late-night secret. He tossed them into my room when I wasn’t there (he couldn’t actually go into my room because I’d bought, soldered and assembled a kitset burglar alarm for my bedroom door) and when I’d finished them I tossed them back in his room. I’d never have been able to be seen, anywhere, at any time, with those books in my possession – and they literally saved my life. I discovered that there were other people like me in the imaginary world across the sea where the albatross flew. We never spoke of it.
Unwittingly I’d filled my life with gay people. I read and obsessed over the Merchant Ivory film of A Room with a View by E. M. Forster, loved Oscar Wilde – and yet at the time I knew none of them were also capable of the “love that dare not speak its name”. Without those men, and their coded messages, I cannot think I would ever have made it through.
I would listen to the “gay show” on the student radio station using my crystal set and started showing up at the station. I ended up scoring myself an early-morning Saturday radio show of my own. The perfect excuse not to be playing rugby. It was magical. I doubt anyone tuned in, but I did discover The Smiths, I discovered someone else ached with “Shyness that is criminally vulgar”
When I was 16, in spite of the Salvation Army’s best efforts and a petition that even my parents signed, homosexuality was decriminalised in New Zealand. Discrimination on the basis of sexuality was still legal – it would take the late arrival of the AIDS epidemic to bring that kind of civil protection to gay people, but at least now my secret wasn’t a living embodiment of Thoughtcrime. I finished school with a report that stated on its front page “Chris is a liability in the classroom”. No matter, I’d never darken the door of a school classroom again. I’d got my A Bursary and a place in the English programme at University. I shook my mother’s hand at the door and said “Thank you for bringing me up”. I got into my Austin 1300 with hydro-lastic suspension and I was gone.
University was a revelation. My course in English literature spanned centuries, and took some major deviations into Latin American fiction, post-colonial fiction and feminism. There was even a year-long paper in contemporary women’s fiction where I was the only male in a room of 100. I discovered the coded voice of my own people in parallel with the discovery of the emergent voice of women in Literature. I learned of the power of writing, literature and language to affect the world and change an individual’s life. I took up part time work in the student radio station, took over the ‘gay show’, took to wearing tank tops a lot and became an aerobics instructor. Mum had to accelerate her own coming out process before her friends and colleagues discovered the uncomfortable fact of her gay son via talkback radio.
Immediately on finishing a lack-lustre BA in English with Philosophy, I started working full time in radio. At 22 I took the position of Station Manager in a small radio station in Christchurch. Those 7 years of hard work in were interspersed with a lot of surfing, cycling and ever-growing class sizes at the city gym. Alongside this were the the all-too frequent deaths of young men – my friends – in the terror, acrimony and misery of AIDS before the retro-viral treatments made it across the vast sea. I discovered the true meaning of community when an ex-partner of my boyfriend, dying from an AIDS-related illness, lived with us for his last 9 months. He was cared for by everyone in our local community from our neighbours to old friends. When he finally died one shining day while the rest of us were out swimming in that endless sea, I truly grasped the notion that death can be a welcome release. We were barred from attending his funeral by his family, but then, they’d barred themselves from most of his adult life. We got the better end of the deal.
Moving from radio to aerobics took me one step closer to the direct relationships I was craving in my life. The audience was now in the room with me and I was now more than a disembodied voice. I always wondered if embarking as a career as an aerobics instructor was somewhat about reclaiming that moment when my ballet dreams were thwarted all those years ago. During the next four years of managing a force of 50 aerobics instructors in a massive urban gym, the social climate changed dramatically in New Zealand, and the wider acceptance of gay people opened up a world of possibility. A long-repressed idea re-entered my mind “What about being a teacher?”.
That first moment of stepping into a school as an adult – standing in front of those young people and knowing, just knowing, that before anything else it was their hearts I held in my hand – changed my life. In the time since then I’ve worked in everything from massive urban co-eds to a six year stint as HOD English/Drama in an alpine outdoor education school, Mount Aspiring College.
There’s a photo of me standing in a glacial lake with my ‘class’ all holding hands. Goodness knows what I was doing at the time, but I think it’s safe to say it didn’t have much to do with Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar. My students would be winning Shakespeare performance competitions one weekend and winning multi-sport races the next. To me, to us all, it felt completely natural that these things happened as part of ordinary schooling. Detentions consisted of a run up a hill. I belonged to the local running and swimming clubs and for the first time in my life enjoyed the un-self-conscious pleasure of engaging in sport with others.
There was this moment one winter’s evening where I was outside my little house chopping wood for the fire. I was still in my school suit, and all around me the mountains looked on in silence. The milky way was infinite above me and the freezing air made my breath visible before it drifted out of the pale light from inside. I realised in spite of everything I was still in many senses very alone. I was absolutely loved and embraced by my school and my community, but the solitude that had once been unavoidable had over time become a familiar companion. Walking inside to light the fire I realised that there was one last change I needed to make. I needed to be amongst my own people. Other men in their middle years who had also struggled to come to terms with their sexual identity and who were finding a meaningful role in life without their own children.
I went to work in a boys’ comprehensive school in central London. In spite of the radical geographical shift, there was a sense I had gone full-circle. I was back in a boys’ state school much like the one I went to. I was now the teacher in the classroom whose privilege it was to participate in the nurturing and development of young men.
In addition to good solid routines and competent, perhaps sometimes inspirational experiences of learning in English, I recognise that some of these boys also needed great care. Whether it be due to personal circumstance, cultural difference or challenges at home, sometimes they also felt alienated from the world around them. I believed it was important that I was sensitive to all of this and that I showed great patience and openness to these young men. I know from personal experience the power a teacher can have on the life of a young person, and I was determined to make sure my influence is positive. I still had books to help me and it has been my life’s mission to provide them with access to this incredible resource of human endeavour in the same spirit as my brother did.
I think I could now confidently say: I am no longer a liability in the classroom.