Trying to find math inside everything else

The Other F Word

It’s been a few years since a student has called me a faggot.

Not that I hadn’t heard the word, of course. I do teach teenagers, after all, and it does come up. But no more than once or twice a year, because I come down hard on it. I’m pretty jovial in class, and even when I’m mad it’s a quiet mad, but that’s a time when the full-shout comes out. The student needs to leave the room and have a pretty serious talk about the power of words and hate speech. Usually it is done out of ignorance. Usually we can move past it.

Today I was walking in the hallway, having just gotten my lunch, when I heard the word, solitary, a single statement alone. “Faggot.”

It has happened before, though not, actually, that word, but rather “maricón.” That was in my first year teaching, with a student I would spar with quite frequently. When I mentioned it to my principal that year he was suitably enraged – meetings were had, parents called in, etc. And then we kept on.

There were three of us in the hall at the time, so maybe I was unclear. “Are you talking to me?” I asked.

“Who else would I be talking to?”

I told another LGBT colleague about it the next period. They were visibly upset by the news, a quiet shaking, but a deep anger. “That’s not the kind of environment I want to work in. Something needs to actually happen about this.” Referring to, of course, the habit of the school to either let slide an incident or go for a suspension, with little in between.

How did I react? Stunned silence, I suppose. That full-shout wasn’t anywhere near the surface. Why was that? Direction, intent, they matter, I suppose. When I hear it errantly in class, I am still the teacher. It is my role to teach them the error of their ways, to make clear the severity of their transgression. The anger there is a teaching tool, in its own way. It’s building on the relationship I have with the student, showing my emotion to forge a stronger connection that can avoid it in the future. Maybe the anger was gone because the relationship was broken.

When I went to the dean immediately after, the school aide immediately left to pull the student from class. But we all wondered why. The student is not in any of my classes – I have not taught them since they were a freshmen. What purpose did this serve? What’s the point?

As I spoke with my colleague, the next period, they appeared, sheepishly, at the door. “I’m sorry.” “I was just talking about some sneakers and it just came into my head to point it at you.” “I didn’t know you were going to take it personally.”

How else was I going to take it? I’m a person.

I wonder, also, if my reaction was different because I know this student so well. Did I know that it came from a place of teenage stupidity, not a place of hate? There are certainly other students where it would be much more hateful if they said it, that I know. But here, the emotion I felt the most was confusion.

My colleague felt a lot better after the apology. We both talked with the student about how hateful speech can be and how the choices we make with what we say matter. The benefits of restorative justice, I guess. No suspensions will be made, but I am okay with that, of course. We can’t suspend our way to peace. When there’s a breakdown, well, we just need to build up again.


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