A postscript to my post yesterday which was a bit intense — as civil rights issues and drawing from one’s past as it relates to the world today can be!
Growing up gay in a small town, and a fairly Catholic, Republican one at that, was a challenge for me and my other classmates who are now middle-aged gay men! Many of us left that town years ago.
Thanks to Facebook, I’m able to get glimpses of what happened to all of us. How terrific, for example, that a great swimmer who was taunted by his teammates (who openly mocked the way he swam even as he was setting records!) has now found a life partner. How amazing that someone I didn’t even know was gay has been with his husband ever since we graduated from high school. How reassuring that many of us are still true to what helped us through those tough years: sports, music, backpacking.
In that small town where everyone knew everyone, teachers taught generations of families. Once, after I had my own family, I went shopping with my mother. Dozens of people greeted her. When we drove back home, she said, “You know, I taught the mother, daughter, and granddaughter of that last person who came up to us.”
Dave Carlson was a middle school science teacher in my mother’s school. He also started a backpacking program for students, teachers, and staff. Science was not among my favorite subjects, and I looked a lot more comfortable on the tennis court than on a hiking trail. But Dave Carlson’s science room was a refuge from the daily taunts, spitting at the back of my neck (all the more convenient so I could not see directly who was doing it), and sometimes kicks to parts of the body that hurt a boy a great deal while he is walking down a school corridor to move from one class to another.
Dave let me hang out in his science room and on the trails. He talked to me about tennis and other sports, science, and the weather when he led groups hiking. He never talked about the bullying he saw, but by making his classroom a safe space for me and others, he was our friend and a quiet, generous role model.
Even though some teachers stay around for generations, students often move on, live in different places. Some people from my youth whom I haven’t seen for years are frozen in my mind’s eye. If I meet them during a rare visit to my mother, I’m a bit startled as I’m sure they are when they see me!
One day, on my mother’s porch, the safety of years and relief I had survived the bullying afforded me time to be reflective. I asked what Dave Carlson was now doing. I imagined he had retired and was hiking beautiful trails through small mountains and creeks as he liked to do. “Oh, he died a long time ago,” my mother said. “You know he was a heavy smoker.”
I about fell off the porch. I didn’t know. Later that day I visited one of the trails Dave and I hiked when I was an awkward teenager grateful for his taking me under his wing. I left flowers I had picked along the way on an embankment overlooking a stream where the water pushes through a few stone barriers and flows freely.