When an eighth grade student reached out to her, teacher Susan Johnson reached back. As a reward, the school suspended her, and in doing so, may as well have branded the student as gay. Today, teacher Susan Johnson and the students lucky enough to have her, are On Our Radar.
My favorite part of writing fiction is the imagining. I can’t tell you how many hours I have spent lying in the dark with a pillow over my face, trying to conjure up how it would feel to inhabit whatever character I was trying to bring to life. I’m not sure why I need the pillow, I’m convinced it works as a kind of idea antenna. (We can discuss the inspiration pillow some other time, after you have stopped snickering.) My point is, writing On Our Radar this week, I spent a lot of time trying to imagining what it might be like to be a thirteen year old LGBT questing kid. Of course, I can never really know, but I am willing to bet this is a true statement: Rare indeed is the eighth grader struggling with his orientation, who will have enough clarity or self-assurance to simply come out.
I imagine there is a tortured dance. The Q Dance. Besides the inevitable internal turmoil, an eighth grade kid is going to be wary about what he says and to whom he says it. He’s scared of bullies. Of rejection. Of being laughed at. It is very possible he’s deathly afraid his parents will find out.
I remember from writing about the Safe Space Campaign, and about the need to develop an LGBT Big Brothers Program, how important it is for such a kid to find a sympathetic adult he can talk to. But even if he identifies a teacher who seems like she’d be cool, he’s not going to just make an after-school appointment and pour out his heart. He’s going to test the waters. Maybe he’ll write a line in a homework assignment he hopes she’ll ask about. Maybe he’ll wear his message on a T-shirt. Or maybe he’ll want her to hear a song that spoke to him. A good teacher will be able to spot the signs, and will know how to respond when she sees them.
This week, our Detroit area FOX affiliate reported on a teacher from suburban South Lyon’s Centennial Middle School, who received what might have been just such a message from a student. An eighth grader in her Performing Arts Class asked Susan Johnson to play for the class One Love, a song about gay equality by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Luckily for him, she was listening between the lines.
Ms. Johnson told TV 2 reporters she played One Love after being reassured by the student that the song contained no profanity or references to violence. Was the student who asked her to play the song gay or questioning? I have no idea. I can think of a hundred other reasons he might have wanted the class to hear the song, but I know Susan Johnson, with years of teaching experience to go by, felt it was important to respond in an open-minded and accepting fashion. Whether this was a gay kid reaching out, or a straight kid who wanted to talk about a confusing issue, or just a kid who wanted to share a song that touched him, Susan Johnson did what good teachers do, she reached back. She told reporters (see the news video below) as she listened to the song, she felt it reinforced the message of tolerance and inclusion she always believed was the school’s mission.
By the end of the day, Ms. Johnson had been suspended.
The principal of Centennial Middle School, identified on the school’s website as Derrek Ross, says he suspended Ms. Johnson because it is school policy for teachers to secure his permission before playing a “controversial” song. I wonder if, before he made it, he ever considered the effect such a rule would have on the trust quotient of students? Can you imagine the class reaction if Ms. Johnson had taken One Love and run down to the principal’s office to ask his guidance before she played it?
This is truly a case where the punishment was a thousand times worse than the infraction, and the collateral damage is inexcusable. We should all hope the young student who asked his teacher to play One Love is not an LGBT questioning kid who tried to make an overture to a trusted teacher. We should hope this because if he is, although Ms. Johnson was ready to catch him if he jumped, his school failed him. His principal betrayed him. And I don’t need a pillow over my face to realize he is probably in a lot of emotional distress right now.
For a moment, spare a thought to that poor kid who asked his teacher to play One Love. Pretend for the sake of this discussion, that the student is a gay-questioning teen, whose first outreach to anyone was to Ms. Johnson. Had the principal thought to trust the instincts of his teacher, or to handle the incident with the best interest of the student in mind, that teen might be on his way to working out his feelings right now. Instead, the principal brought his eighth grade world down on him
Susan Johnson is back in the classroom, where she belongs. She has been offered legal help from the ACLU if she decides she wants to sue the school, or Principal Ross. But come Monday morning, the student, who just wanted his teacher to hear a song, is on his own. I find some comfort that Ms. Johnson will be there to look out for him.
This morning, Susan Johnson, and the students fortunate enough to have her as their teacher, are On Our Radar.
Teen Image via freedigitalphotos.net
Jean Ann Esselink is a straight friend to the gay community. Proud and loud Liberal. Closet writer of political fiction. Black sheep agnostic Democrat from a conservative Catholic family. Living in Northern Oakland County Michigan with Puck the Wonder Beagle.
Writer’s Notes: I am aware the student who asked to play One Love may be a girl. I used the male gender only for ease of pronouns.
Posted below is the WJBK FOX News(Detroit) report in which teacher Susan Johnson is interviewed, explaining in obvious distress:
“I really love my kids and I never want to hurt them, but I also know that there’s a lot of bullying and there’s a lot of gay bashing and racial issues going on in our country and I want the kids to feel comfortable in my class no matter who they are.”
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