By Chris Shorne
Well. This is all very strange. For starters, me addressing you—Mr. Witt—as Paul. A first name implies life outside of being my high school teacher, which you were for four years, in ninth grade Biology, eleventh grade Health, and senior year Advanced Biology (Honors). I graduated twenty-one years ago and I’ve seen you half a dozen times since then, but in my imagination, you mostly stayed static, a known quantity. I’m not sure why it feels different now, after seeing you last week for brunch. Maybe because I haven’t been back in the country long or because I’m sorting through my files, reading poems and school reports I wrote as a teenager.
I remember the first article I read for extra credit. From your biology classroom, I followed you through a door to the science office that I hadn’t realized was there. You opened a storage closet: metal racks floor to ceiling, file boxes wall-to-wall, each box full of photocopied articles and newspaper clippings. You flipped, quickly, to the one for me: “Disabled Doesn’t Mean No Sex.” In the article, a guy talks about people not seeing him as sexual because he uses a wheelchair; on top of that, he explains, he’s bisexual and people think bisexuality isn’t even a real thing.
At that time, in popular imagination, bisexuals were filed in the same folder as leprechauns—fantastical creatures who leap around in the liminal space between earth and rainbow. Finding my response paper in my files, I see now that the author wasn’t actually disabled himself but was talking about a disabled roommate. How dense I am. It just now occurs to me that you may have chosen that article because it was about someone who was queer. Like me. Which sometimes I think you knew before I did. It felt that way a little.
How was it we ended up sitting in one of those study rooms in the library, the ones with windows looking out into the main stacks? Maybe we were discussing my extra credit work, but all I remember is talking—hours of talking, over the course of months—through the queer thing. I mean my queer thing, not yours. I never had the nerve to ask you directly, but I heard from other students. In case you want to know, in case you don’t already, the gossip in the halls went like this: I was in class and someone asked him point blank “Do you have a wife?” And he just said, “Does it matter?” Then they asked “Well, do you have a boyfriend, then?” And the class just died laughing, but he just waited ‘til it was quiet, then he just says, all calm, “Why does it matter?” That’s what I remember of the rumors, anyway. Not much evidence to go on, but we all decided you were gay anyway. We weren’t big on using the scientific method to test hypotheses.
Last week, over brunch, you talked (waving your hands around, slightly effeminately, I smile to realize) about how every classroom should be a visual immersion in that subject, be it Spanish, History, Math, or Science. I remember your room: the double-helix DNA and cell models hanging from the ceiling, cupboards full of microscopes and lab equipment, vining plants, and, in the corner, a full-size plastic human skeleton. I began to think, for the first time, about the kind of energy you put into your classes. My files are full of extra credit papers that read “25 pts. e.c.” and “30 pts. e.c.,” along with your stereotype-validating barely legible comments in blue ink. I remember the day after class when, though I had resigned myself to my “D,” you offered ways for me to make up some missing work.
For one of my first extra credit assignments, you let me write about the movie The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love. I assume this was my idea since I was just coming out, discovering that women who loved women existed and could even make movies. I imagine what kind of hell you’d have gotten if my parents, the principal, or other parents had known, in the 90’s, that you gave me extra credit for watching and discussing a lesbian film. It seems silly now. Why wouldn’t you let me choose a film (age-appropriate and class-related, of course) on a topic that interested me?
It was the second movie I’d seen in which two women kiss. The first was Higher Learning. My parents happened upon it on TV one night, not expecting, of course, anything other than down-home heterosexuality. When the girls kissed, my stomach flipped. And mom said, “Ewww, gross.” I was not out then, but I knew. I’d known since sixth grade, but it had taken years to know what I knew. By the time I watched that movie with them I knew, too, what it would mean to my conservative Baptist parents. I don’t think my life was as horrific as my poems from that time suggest, but it wasn’t a cake walk.
After I came out, my brother mostly kept me away from his kids. My parents sent me to a shrink. An aunt and uncle stopped inviting us over right around the time my dad told them. I don’t know if you knew all that. I don’t think I knew it all, because nothing was said at the time. Which made it harder in a way. The pulling away all around me, silent, amorphous; where could I direct my anger? You were the first adult I told. Re-reading my paper on The Incredibly True Adventure, I see that, more than once, I said the characters were “sweet” and “cute.” I said I could relate to them. And I didn’t say much more than that. You didn’t comment on that paper, which was kind of you. But on another paper, you wrote, “…you’ll probably be able to take some of these ideas even deeper in the years ahead.” I imagine you were as slow in considering what to write as you were in considering what to say.
In high school, two things commanded my attention—and both still hold me firm in their grip. The first was lesbian romance films. Thankfully, there are now more than three, including a handful in which neither of the women falls in love with, leaves the other for, or makes out with a man—and in which neither of the women die. The other thing that interested me was thinking things through by writing essays. On one of my last papers, in Advanced Biology, you wrote: “As you spend time on them, your papers get better and better.” It is only as I write you this letter that I realize these were some of the first essays I wrote. I find, in my files, other schoolwork for your classes which I had forgotten: the research project on my brother’s heart condition, responses to articles on racism, an essay on intersexuality. I remember, only now, the frogs and sheep hearts, which smelled, horribly, like chicken. And meiosis and mitosis.
Also, I found the response paper I wrote about that article “If Men Could Menstruate.” Remember that one? With that line: if men could menstruate they would brag about the size of their tampons. It delights me to remember it again. Hard to believe I’d forgotten. But I have always remembered, clear as the day I got my first period, the afternoon you brought in a panel of lesbians, gays, and (they exist!) bisexuals. Seems that as a queer in the nineties in a conservative Baptist family, it was all things gay that struck me like small meteors, leaving imprints.
My strongest memory, though, has nothing to do with the gay; I have the clearest image of spittle leaving your mouth. You probably wonder what I’m talking about. That lesson you gave on Mental Health during Health class. Remember, on the table in front of the room, next to the projector, you turned a cardboard file box upside down? (I imagine you pulling it from the school’s recycling bin or from your own collection, one that had lost hold of its shape or whose lid had mysteriously rolled away.) You held up the wooden tennis racket and told us they could be found in thrift stores for a dollar or two. Maybe you said something like “Hit things that won’t be hurt by your hitting and that won’t hurt you to hit. Let it out.” But what has glue-sticked itself to my memory is not your words, but what you said in what you did. You wailed like a motherfucker on that cardboard box. I think you broke the racket. You crashed the box. You let your face go. Red and clenched and flailing open mouth. It shocked me, how far you took it. I still remember your spit.
Like looking at a slide under a microscope, I see it up close: a watery sky diver standing on the ledge of your lower lip, wobbly legs noodling off, arching into the air. I knew it was just a lesson, but I couldn’t—. What was it that shocked me? I think it was how unabashed you were, how vulnerable. And the way anger didn’t control you. You used your usual slow speech and calm tone right before and right after, though after, you were a little out of breath. Your white face with dark stubble was still splotched red, yet the anger had not overcome you.
I am thirty-eight, Paul. And I shake my head, still, at your gall. Shake my head at all the times since in which I have exhausted my anger by knocking the shit out of my pillows, my bed, by throwing rotten apples on the ground—harming no one. We were lucky to have you. We were clueless about that, of course. How could I have known how much it all meant: the lessons, the file boxes piled high, how my senior year, you listened in that study room in the library till I was all the way through talking, as if you were never even waiting for me to finish? I came out to my parents that year and in a poem addressed to them, I wrote: “How dare you tell me I’m not normal, / When you made me. […] / How dare you judge me, / When you don’t even know me. / When you never took the time to see me.” How could I have seen then, those talks with you, as I was coming out, how they carried me, as in cupped palms. At the time we all thought you were gay and weird.
Is that why I thought you were weird, even as I was drawn to you? Because I thought you were a homo? (Which, it turns out, you’re not.) Is it that simple? Nothing more than a homophobia I no longer acknowledge? A homophobia which, now, of course, is doubly ironic. The gay afraid of the gay which another person is not. Is that the uncomplicated mechanism of homophobia after all? A projector that enlarges whatever you put on it and moves it onto whatever stands before it. Even as I stopped thinking gay was weird, I still thought you weren’t like the other teachers, which, I guess at the time, meant I still thought you weird, or at least not normal. It’s funny to me now.
Last week, seeing you there at the restaurant in your jeans and worn tennis shoes and polo shirt with your same hair combed to the right and same shaved face, taking spoonfuls of someone else’s cobbler, not only did you not seem weird, you seemed unbelievably normal. Like the effervescent dragon with pearls on his tail (from A Never Ending Story), disguised in the suit of a most ordinary-looking straight white man. I don’t know if it was because I was still adjusting to my life back in the states or what, but this brunch, I was looking closely, watching you. Could you tell? I think you could.
Why did you do that, Paul? Give like that to a public school in the suburbs? Why did you save all those articles? Why did you let me do all that extra credit when I didn’t bother to do the assigned work? Why did you argue with the other teachers in the teacher lounge, defend the Gay-Straight Alliance we started when they tried to shut it down? Why did you let us think you were gay? I mean, I know what you told me: to be an ally to gay teachers (who couldn’t come out without risking their jobs) and a model for students, to teach yourself what it might feel like to never mention your partner, your children, what you did on Christma—I mean, holiday break. I get all that. But I want to know the why under the why.
You let us think you were gay and we talked about that, about you, behind your back. You let us. Unlike actual gay people, you really did choose to make your life more difficult, to let us say those things about you, to hide so much of your life from so many. How could I not have been interested, curious about you? You fucking pretended to be gay. Who does that? (Okay, technically, you did no such thing. You just didn’t ever clarify that it was not true. Amazing that was all it took, huh?) And the skeleton that hung in your room. And all the posters. The microscopes. Over brunch, I tried and failed to get you to answer the most basic questions about yourself. I said “And you? What’re you up to?” You leaned forward, put your chin in your hands. “Well,” you said, “I want to hear more about your trip.”
I think you asked me more about my year as a human rights accompanier in Guatemala during that 2-hour brunch than anyone had in the three months I’d been back. I had that same sensation of wanting to tell you everything, the belief that you would hear it all. Maybe that’s why I’m writing all this now, because some part of me remembers that you are someone I can talk to, think things through with, show feeling in front of. Maybe I wanted to tell you something you might not already know. It is such a short time, really (which seemed to us then eternal), in which teachers give feedback to students and grade their work. But how do you ever really know how well you did this work you chose?
Did we become better people, a little better, because of your work? In case this is a question you ask yourself, I want to tell you how one adult seeing me like you did changed everything. I want to tell you that every article you chose for me challenged and cheered me in just the right proportions, that the give you gave was just enough for me to engage. I want to tell you how excited you made me about my own mind and my ability to steer my own education. I want to tell you that, in no small part because of you, I left high school clear that I did, in fact, belong. Maybe this is my way of showing that, twenty-five years after I met you, I’m still learning what you taught me. Maybe I just wanted to be able to hand something back to you, this paper on which I’ve written: “Good work.”
Chris Shorne is a U.S. citizen who spent 2017 as an international human rights accompanier with NISGUA, Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala. Shorne holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles and has published with Utne Reader online, Portland Review, and Entropy, among others.