Monday, November 8, 2010

Old-Job Exorcism, Part 1

The other day at work, I was sitting around with the children's librarian and a couple of students watching the Philadelphia Free Library’s “It Gets Better” video. I wished that I could send a video of that moment to my eight-months-ago self.

My high school bullies seem dumb and insignificant to me, as they should at 36, but the adult bullies of the past few years feel like zombies: I’m safe for now, but they’re always coming for me, ready to take everything.

I guess “exorcism” would be mixing my monster-metaphors, but I really hope that writing out the homophobia and fear from my old job will go some distance towards getting the fear out of my mind and heart.

Disclaimer 1: If you come to this blog for a cheer-up (and why shouldn’t you?) you may want to skip this series.

Disclaimer 2: Some people that I like, including one of my favorite readers, still work there. They do a LOT of good work and this is definitely not meant to hurt them.

Disclaimer 3: I don’t want to paint myself as a victim. My inability to deal with my own culture-shock went a long way toward making things harder, and I have a lot of regret about my various storm-outs. I wish there was a way to make it up to the kids I left suddenly, to the friends I lost.

The company that I worked for during my AmeriCorps service (Sept 2008- March 2010) had this mission statement: “To enrich the lives of children, youth, and families by providing educational programs and services in communities confronting high rates of poverty and other barriers to educational achievement.” That’s worth going through a lot for and I’m glad that I tried as hard as I could to accomplish that.

It is not illegal in Pennsylvania to discriminate against someone based on sexual orientation. However, since my AmeriCorps stipend was paid with federal funds, I do believe that the law was broken. You’ll see, though, why I feel like there’s not much I can do about that. Partly it was my own dumb choices.

The first afterschool site was straight-up sexist and racist. When I asked the manager for help with classroom racial tension (I was feeling drained from kids’ and coworkers’ near-constant “White people are evil” type comments, and I was unsure of how to address them) the manger responded by saying that we needed “a male teacher in the classroom, to bring more order.” My teaching partner and I were in the middle of trying to facilitate some kind of object lesson about unity, and this man wanted to pull a barrier down the middle of the room to separate the boys from the girls. I was so shocked and livid that I packed up my little pink teacher bins with my supplies and left before the kids arrived for the day. I felt like a horrible abandoner to my partner and students. I still feel that way while typing this.

The company was kind enough to transfer me to a site with a more progressive coordinator. One of my first days there was for the yearly field trip to Washington, so it was pretty easy to bond with the kids quickly. As I always do, I answered their “Who are you married to?” questions honestly and matter-of-factly, and the coordinator supported my choice to do so. One little girl spent the trip saying things like “That’s disgusting, that’s wrong, that’s a sin,” but most kids kind of just took it in stride after a few follow-up questions.

Things went really well at the new site. We published a chapbook of the kids’ poems, I got to emcee the talent show, and I brought in some slam veterans to create the tiniest performance poets. My artsy boss made me feel like my skills were welcome, even calling me “The Poetry Lady” rather than my real title, “Group Leader.” I felt like I’d found a place to fit in.

But a coulple of months after I started, The Operations Manager (my boss’s boss) pulled me aside at a training and let me know that a parent had complained and accused me of showing a kid pictures of Amy on my phone. (I hadn’t, but that seems pointless to say.) She said that talking about my family was offensive to people’s culture, and would I please show some more respect. She said that she wouldn’t want her own children to know about Amy and me.

I responded calmly but asked for a meeting about a week later. I told her that I felt discriminated against, since my coworkers could talk all about their families. My boss’s wife was always around with her pregnant tummy and their little daughter, flaunting their heterosexuality for all to see. I felt like OM and I reached some kind of understanding, but of course I never mentioned my family again, and my “progressive” boss acted terrified whenever the kids brought it up.

Since I’d accomplished so much, projectwise, in my first school year, I was promoted to Summer Program Facilitator. Stay tuned, if you can stand it, for what happened that summer.


  1. No disclaimers needed, Lady! This is YOUR place to share YOUR thoughts...we all deserve a sacred place to reflect. I will follow this series (although it will be tough for me) because I never, ever knew what you went through/felt during your time at the place. If you would prefer for me to "step out of the room", though...I can do that as well!

  2. Awwwww, thanks so much. I am so grateful to you for all of the kindness and support you give me, and all of the goodness you give the kids all the time. No need to step out of the room, although this is the mildest part of the story...