Teachable Moments: The Fragility of Manhood

I’m roughly a third of the way through my TEFL Certification course with ITA. The course is designed to prepare students to teach English in a variety of classrooms, both traditional and nontraditional, as well as to work as a private tutor. As I read about different teaching philosophies and method, I can’t help but think about my own experiences as a student.

This particular story isn’t about how a teacher inspired me, or about an innovative teaching style. This is a story about a teacher speaking to his class in an unexpected and, ultimately, sad moment.

(Warning: There is use of a particular slur in this story that some will find offensive.)

When we entered after lunch, Mr. Capp* was at the front of the class as usual, standing straight up in pressed slacks, a button-up shirt, and a solid green tie. He neither dressed formally in suits like Mr. Harkins, the civics teacher, or casually in short-sleeved polos like Mr. Wells who taught English and coached girls’ tennis; he taught Senior Psychology. Having entered into his 30s with an unassuming handsomeness, he watched us in silence.

Of my non-Humanities classes. Psychology was by far my favorite, an interest that would carry on into college. Two sections were of particular interest, the first on human sexuality and the other Depression-related disorders. Mr. Capp approached both subjects with professional nonchalance, covering subjects like homosexuality and suicide – delicate topics in any high school, let alone in the Midwest – with the same matter-of-factness as Ms. Pohl explaining vectors.  As his sartorial choices suggested, Mr. Capp straddled the line between Student’s Buddy and Strict Mentor. He knew how to engage with students, but he would commonly remind us that we were seniors and that meant we needed to act like upperclassmen. He had no patience for laziness or entitled students.

This particular Tuesday, he was uncharacteristically tightlipped as we streamed in.

Two weeks prior, in a discussion on gender norms, Mr. Capp had given a remarkably sympathetic and forward-thinking lecture, espousing the potentially controversial stance that one’s biological sex must not necessarily determine one’s gender or how one expressed it. To illustrate this theme, he split the class up into a male and female group and then had the groups compete in a series of stereotypically gender-specific tasks, such as running in heels and throwing a football. The catch was that the teams picked which member from the other team would compete in each activity.

Being a mostly anonymous student at the school, I assumed (and hoped) I would be able to ride out the whole competition in the background. To my great chagrin, I was chosen to participate in one event: I had to fasten a hinge between two blocks of wood. Apparently the ladies had figured I might not be the “manliest” kid in the class – perceptive, these ones. Their astute observation paid off as I was defeated handily by my female competitor. If it was any consolation to my team, the guys did win the high heels race.

Despite my embarrassment – and I was still young and insecure enough for the loss to feel deeply shameful – I enjoyed the section and found the topic to be reassuring.

This is what made the strange occurrence in Mr. Capp’s class that Tuesday all the more confusing. With all the students settled into their seats, Mr. Capp remained briefly silent. This was already an odd start since he was not one to waste any of the class period. We had just started the section on Bipolar Disorder, but when he finally did speak, it was not to begin the lecture.

“Last night, after school let out, I went to visit my mother.” I think most of us assumed Mr. Capp was telling us a story to illustrate the lesson. We quickly realized that wasn’t the case. “While I was in her house, some coward vandalized her property.” I don’t recall now if he actually said the word or merely suggested it, but either way, we all knew what had happened: Someone spray-painted the word ‘faggot’ on his mother’s driveway. “We know it was a student and the police will be thoroughly investigating.”

He continued through contained rage on the subject of respect and maturity. The entire class listened with the kind of rapt attention most teachers could only dream of. The speech Mr. Capp delivered probably only lasted five minutes, but it felt like it took up the whole class. There was undeniable fury seething behind Mr. Capp’s stony expression, his commitment to total professionalism losing out to filial devotion. He tried to focus his anger through derision, mocking the perpetrator for being dumb enough to not even graffiti the right house, but there was no mirth in his tone.

Then the venting took an unexpected turn.

“If there’s anyone here who questions whether I’m a man, we can go outside right now and I’ll prove it. Are you man enough to fight me? Or just a coward vandalizing an old woman’s house in the dark?” It would have been laughable if it hadn’t been stated with such virulence.

What were we supposed to make of this bizarre presentation? How could someone who had just weeks earlier taught us that gender norms were a societal construct now face us and insist that he would defend his manhood through the most banal display of machismo?

The simplest answer is that sometimes we can know something intellectually but not internalize that knowledge. In heightened emotional states, in those moments when we need them the most, we rarely maintain our grasp on our ideals. The whole display – his anger, his barely maintained façade, his hypocrisy – was in its own way one of the most profound lessons I’ve ever received.

It didn’t take long for someone to find the ID of a student in the lawn of Mr. Capp’s mother. It belonged to Brady, a rich kid who no one seemed to actually like yet who occupied the center of the most popular social circle, an argument for class privilege if you ever needed one. One of those seniors who intended to ride out his final year in pud classes, it’s no surprise that Brady ran afoul of Mr. Capp and bristled at being asked to put in actual effort. 

As Seniors, we thought of ourselves as the elder statesmen, but Brady proved, we were still just kids.

I have no idea if Mr. Capp still teaches or whether anyone ever took him up on his challenge. I also don’t know what happened to Brady, though I suspect very little in terms of punishment or lasting consequence. Despite the disheartening display that Tuesday afternoon, I still think of Mr. Capp’s class as one of the most influential factors in my educational path, one that included many more psychology courses and has continued well beyond the formal classroom.

I wonder if Mr. Capp still thinks back on that day; if so, does he regrets his words? Maybe he’s ashamed, or maybe he feels it was justified.  Perhaps, due to cognitive dissonance – a concept I’d only study later in my college psych courses – he has somehow mentally rearranged the incident into something heroic or even noble, crafting a personal narrative in which he stood before his classroom and displayed the model of an enlightened, post-gender male. I’ll never know. It doesn’t matter.

It might be strange to say this but, I actually did learn a lot from this experience. It was the beginning of a long arc for me, coming to terms with my own idea of masculinity and strength. It’s a lesson we continue to learn every day, as Mr. Capp proved.

It’s also a reminder that, whether in front of a classroom or tutoring a student one-on-one, any moment as a teacher can be significant.

*All names are made up.

[“Calvin and Hobbes” created by Bill Watterson.]

What can a white, heterosexual, cisgender male do? Listen.

This past week has been loud.

Our entrance into the Gilded Phage erupted in protests, violence, and hate speech, while Twitter fights, Facebook rants, and, most vital, thoughtful blog posts remain at pre-Election levels. Voices are still reaching the cheap seats as dire warnings of an encroaching wave of racism and bigotry are met with caustic dismissals demanding people “Wait and see” and “Stop whining.” It’s a wall of sound that would make Phil Spector tumescent.

This election proved one thing: there are a lot of white, heterosexual, cisgender males in this country, and despite assertions that they are the new oppressed minority, they remain both the most powerful and vocal force in American politics. As a member of that demographic, I have never felt so dismayed to be so visible.

For the last year, ever since I completed 10 Cities, I’ve been largely silent. Up until last week, this website had gone dark and I had minimized my Facebook presence (I’ve remained somewhat active on Twitter; my apologies). I’ve been practicing a skill that doesn’t come naturally to me: Listening.


Listening to voices that aren’t white, heterosexual, cisgender, and/or male is critical for the continued growth of our society and for our growth as individuals. We only need look at last Tuesday to know what’s at stake when we don’t.

One of the ways I’ve been reminding myself to be a better listener is intentionally seeking out voices that wouldn’t naturally enter my sphere of interests. As a white, heterosexual, cisgender male, I’m striving to engage with the points of view of those who aren’t. I’ve not intentionally avoided or ignored those voices in the past, but by nature of our societal structure, I’ve done it all the same.

So far, this endeavor has had the greatest impact in my consumption of art, particularly music and literature. I’ve read assault narratives and about rape culture (Alice Sebold and Kate Harding), read fiction from people of color (Colson Whitehead and Zadie Smith; Zadie pisses me off because her first novel is just so damn good) as well as non-American authors (Arturo Perez-Reverte). I’ve read many other authors (including plenty of white males) this last year, but I hope to find even more diverse voices next year. 

Additionally, and to a much greater extent, I’ve been listening to a more varied slate of musical artists. My musical taste has always been eclectic, but my go-tos have generally been white, straight dudes. It seems like a trivial thing because it’s an easy thing; I love music and I love finding new artists. And yet, as easy as it is to do, it still had to be a conscious choice. Ultimately, that minimum effort to expand my palate has been deeply enriching.

To that end, I’m concluding this post with a by-no-means-exhaustive list of artists who are not white, or not male, or not straight, or not cisgender. The list could expand indefinitely, but these just happen to be some that I’ve come to really appreciate over the last year and who, importantly, offer a broader perspective.

And, finally, to my fellow white, heterosexual, cisgender males: There’s no prize for listening, no pat on the back; there’s just the pleasant reality that so many voices deserve our attention and we are invariably enriched by the simple experience of hearing a new perspective.

I hope you enjoy the music and that you’ll keep listening.

Gallant – Episode

Against Me! – Black Me Out

Tegan and Sara – Boyfriend

Lydia Loveless – Midwestern Guys

Solange – Don’t Touch My Hair

It’s Okay To Be Happy That Fred Phelps Is Dead

Fred Phelps, the controversial, bile-filled preacher famous for popularizing the phrase, “God Hates Fags”, has died today, March 20th.

Good.

There will be much talk of how we must meet hate with love, and how instead of protesting his funeral with angry signs (as his group often did at the funerals of soldiers), people should show up with offerings of love and support for his family. It’s certainly a nice idea, and if people do it, it’ll make for a pleasant photo-op to splatter all over the Huffington Post and Upworthy.

But let’s be real: Death doesn’t suddenly make horrible actions immaterial. No one mourns for Hitler, no one mourns for Pol Pot, no one should mourn for Bin Laden, and I will not mourn for Phelps, even on behalf of the small percentage of his family that escaped his nightmarish church and brainwashing.

A bad person is dead, and that is a good thing. He didn’t die a martyr, he died the way all wretched, atavistic beliefs die: Slowly but inevitably. Phelps’ death, unlike his life, is worth a smile.

It’s a nice sentiment to say, ‘All we need is love.’ But love and hate are not enemies. How can we appreciate the full force of love without recognizing the might of hate? If there are things in this world worth loving, surely there are things in this world worth hating, such as oppression and the systematic destruction of people. Fred Phelps was not Hitler. Only Hitler was Hitler. But Phelps was a terrible human being, a man led as much by self-aggrandizement as his black heart of hate. And for that, I have no love.

I will not go dance on Phelps’ grave, nor will I protest his funeral or attack his mourning family. His years of vile and contemptuous hatemongering have come to an end, and it’s enough to merely say, “Good.”

May everything he stood for come to a similar end.

mbhayes7

Religion is a Choice

The Baptism of Christ

The recent attempt (and failure) in various states to “preserve religious freedom” by dumping on the gays has added a new wrinkle to the Gay Rights debate. With the tides of inevitability pretty much guaranteeing that within the decade we will see the national legalization of same-sex marriage, the religious right and conservative groups seem to be shifting their focus: If they can’t stop the gays from getting married, they’ll simply refuse to attend the weddings (me-e-oww).

Despite all scientific evidence and reason (and even bigger failures), much of the religious opposition base their public arguments on the notion that homosexuality is a choice. Of course, they have to hold onto this view because if they acknowledge that sexual orientation is as much an engrained reality as gender or race, the whole “Gays are going to hell” thing gets a little difficult to preach (though, never put it past a Christian* to find a nifty, gymnastic justification for whatever belief they hold).

It’s an interesting view: Since homosexuality is a choice, a person of religious conviction has the right to discriminate against them (oh, I’m sorry, not discriminate, “condemn the lifestyle”).

Well, religion is a choice. In fact, religion is nothing but choice. Which God do you want to worship? Allah, Yahweh, Jesus or someone else with less publicity? Which part of the Bible do you choose to believe is literal? Just the New Testament, maybe parts of the Old Testament, or the whole shebang? Which laws still apply to you? Which sins should you ignore? Which IRA investment strategy does God want you to pursue so that you can be rich, just like he wants you to be?

Christians are always complaining that their religious liberties are under attack, yet by their own logic we should be able to discriminate against them all willy nilly because their faith is a choice. It’s one of our sacred rights to discriminate against people’s choices.

Of course, Christians aren’t discriminated against in this country, not really. An individual Christian might face some discrimination, a Christian might have an unpleasant experience in a store or restaurant, or be verbally abused by a stranger, and sometimes Christians are told that they can’t have everything they want. But there isn’t a systematic mechanism in place for discriminating against Christians, like, for instance, the ones they would love to see codified into law against homosexuals.

The reason, of course, is that nearly 80% of the nation’s population are self-proclaimed Christians (I’ll leave it to them to tell you how many are ‘Real Christians’™). The Christianity vs. Homosexuals debate comes down to basic numbers. One side is the majority, the other is the minority. Our Bill of Rights was created to help prevent the Tyranny of the Majority. Granted, our nation has a long, dark history of stomping all over the rights of the minority, but that’s all the more reason for us to not be swayed by arguments such as “You’re changing the definition of marriage” or “Tradition.” The history of the world is the story of greater liberty for all, won through fits and starts and uncomfortable evolution.

If you’re a Christian and you don’t like the changes you’re seeing in the world, don’t fret. Christianity is a choice, so just change your religious orientation to one that’s less judgmental and bigoted and you’ll be totally happy.

Or you could just choose to not be an a-hole.

ASofterWorld.com

*For the purposes of this post, it should be understood that any reference to ‘Christians’ refers to the conservative, right-leaning members of the religion.

Coming Out to Mom and Dad

cross-legged queer
you make the margins pretty
black dotted eyes
the sound of your oxygenated voice
all for stars
we know you
but your brother is love
and we love him most of all
call us home
we don’t fly
you are signs
we don’t read
no, this is all of the world
all for you
that we leave without words
sad to say
you will never be
right with us
but that is life
and you know
all cannot be right all the time
we won’t protect you
only know you
What more can be asked?

Billy Graham 2

Jason Collins, Christian Free Speech and The Gay Frontier

Jason Collins Is Gay SI Cover

Jason Collins

Well, it finally happened. An active professional athlete has ‘come out of the closet.’ What else needs to be said that hasn’t already been covered? I can’t help but feel that this is a ‘Big’ story because it’s supposed to be a ‘Big’ story. It will continue to feed the news circuit for a couple more weeks, but most of the focus of the story seems to be about the reactions (or expected reactions) to the announcement, not the actual coming out.

So the President and other big names praised Collins ‘bravery,’ and then some Christians and conservative commentators wheeled out the same old hash about ‘sin’ and ‘keep it to yourself.’

For the most part, I would say the response has been largely supportive, because how could it not be? They’ll be some old school homophobes in the league who will be weird about it and someone will unleash a slur and get fined a few hundred thousand dollars, but most of these NBA players have publicists and image consultants who will keep them on the right side of this topic, regardless of their actual feelings and beliefs. No one is going to quit because they refuse to play with a gay player. This won’t be a Jackie Robinson moment.

And that’s mainly because this is a long overdue event. When Jackie Robinson broke the race barrier in baseball, it was momentous because it was a huge step forward for our society. He started playing on a professional team in 1947, well before the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. In comparison, Jason Collins coming out in this moment in the Gay Rights movement would be the equivalent of Robinson joining professional baseball in 1978. That’s not to say it isn’t still a big deal, but the fact that no other players have come out speaks more to the regressive, hyper-masculine atmosphere of sports culture than to society in general.

So, good, Collins is out. Hopefully that means others who have feared living openly will now be free to do so, professional athlete or not.

Open Rebellion

Christian Free Speech

In all the hullabaloo about Collin’s announcement, there was a kind of waiting game for the first bigot to come out and denounce him. Not that we needed to wait, I’m sure it took all of 3 seconds for an internet commentator to type F-A-G-G-O-T under an article.

The real watershed moment, though, was Chris Broussard on ESPN. Let me pause to say that I don’t think Broussard is, in fact, a bigot. I actually have no idea. While I think the “love the sinner, hate the sin,” rhetoric is a load of crap, I do believe it is possible for Christians to have beliefs and preach them, but not really hold them true in their heart. Heck, it’s not only possible, it happens all the time. If Christians can be hypocrites in a bad way, perhaps they can be hypocrites in a good way. So maybe Broussard is just espousing the party line and he truly doesn’t have any ill or bigoted feelings towards homosexuals.

Then again, most of what he said in the interview was utter bullocks. He says people should “tolerate” his beliefs like he “tolerates” homosexuals. Except, how exactly is he tolerating homosexuality by calling it a ‘sin’ and saying that a homosexual can’t be a Christian? Is he tolerant because he isn’t stoning them to death? That’s a pretty low standard for tolerance. Plus, how is saying someone is a sinning, non-Christian (who, let’s be honest, is going to hell) more tolerant than someone else calling you a bigot? ‘Sinner,’ ‘Bigot,’ they’re both just labels for ‘others.’

The outcry that naturally comes up anytime something like this makes the news is over the supposed squelching of Christian Free Speech. Some people have said ESPN should fire Broussard (I don’t agree, but that’s ESPN’s choice to make), and with those outcries comes Christians saying, “Gay people can say whatever they want and no one complains, but if I speak my beliefs I’m persecuted.”

Tebow-Collins

This cartoon pretty much perfectly illustrates the sentiment, while also exposing why it’s so wrongheaded. In reality, all the media ever seemed to want to talk about was Tebow’s Christianity. I don’t recall a single story about him that didn’t make mention of his faith (granted, I don’t really follow the NFL, or any professional sports for that matter). If there were people telling him to keep it to himself, it was fans of the game who didn’t care about his beliefs. The Media was all too happy to keep bringing up the subject because it got page hits.

Also, is a professional athlete being a Christian really a news story? By a pretty large majority, most Americans are Christian. It’s safe to bet that in any profession, in any field, there are going to be Christians. The normal reaction to finding out Tim Tebow is a Christian by anybody in this country should be *shrugs*. The fact that I, a man who doesn’t watch any football, knows that Tebow is an outspoken Christian speaks to just how much the media talked about it.

On the other hand, there has never been even one openly gay athlete on any professional team in America. That’s why Collins’ coming out is newsworthy, and why people are talking about it. If he had announced he was heterosexual, than this cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune might have had a point.

Christians too often mistake having unpopular beliefs with being persecuted. If you say homosexuality is a sin and a bunch of people shout you down, that’s not called censorship, that’s just being on the wrong side of history. There are countless opinions in the world that are wrong, despicable and/or based on ignorance, and when those opinions get put out in the public sphere the responsibility of society is to stomp those opinions out. We’ve attempted as much with sexism and racism. Just because you choose to interpret the Bible as condemning homosexuality, that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to take you seriously.

Star Trek The Final Frontier

The Gay Frontier

So what’s next for those in the homosexual agenda homosexual men and women in the public sphere? There is a gay athlete, gay politicians, gay pop stars, gay actors and legal same sex marriage in more and more states. Years of fighting for equal rights has led to this moment in history, not perfect but better than it’s ever been.

If history is our guide, we know for every two steps forward, there will be a step backwards. I don’t think any women with any sense of history would want to live in pre-feminist days, but that’s not to say that gender equality has been completely achieved now. The same can be said of racial equality. The work is not completed, and maybe it never will be. But we keep working towards it, because it’s fair, and it’s right, and it’s the best of all possible worlds. Equality isn’t about creating a utopia, it’s about recognizing our natural state.

Perhaps one day there will be a gay president. But until that momentous barrier is broken, we can take baby steps into new frontiers.