Recently an essay by a student at the school where I teach was named one of sixteen finalists in the Facing History and Ourselves essay contest. I had given him a gentle nudge to write and submit after reading another piece of his writing that I found compelling. He’s a motivated, responsible, and thoughtful student, so I felt confident that, with a good effort, his short 500-word essay about ethical decision-making could reach a large audience.
Part of the brilliance of the structure of this essay contest is that it involves the public in choosing the contest winners; of those sixteen finalists, ten will receive awards, and those awards are determined by online voting. So that our own community at Western Reserve Academy could commend Charlie and hear his work, he read his essay to the school in the chapel (the same one where Frederick Douglass spoke during a commencement). Though I had read and commented on his essay through the writing process, hearing his delivery in that space with the community changed the way I heard (read) and experienced the essay.
Charlie writes about his coming out as gay a couple of years ago and how he stays visible. He discusses how his visibility—his openness with regard to his sexuality—allies him to other people whose identities cannot be hidden. He clearly subscribes to the belief that relationships change people and that sharing who you are is just as important as the ideas you share as well.
I forget that this young writer is only seventeen and has the wisdom that some spend lifetimes pursuing. And while his essay is brimming with queer optimism, I don’t think that it’s purely naïve. It’s impossible to live even in a supportive community and not recognize moments that attempt to stifle or silence queerness.
The other day, I was reading Richard Wilbur’s “The Writer” with my tenth grade students. It’s a poem that I usually read with seniors as a sort of benediction, but this year I thought it right for the sophomores. As Charlie read his essay before our community—when he used his visibility to make 400+ people think about what it means to be gay or to be an ally for a few minutes—I thought of the father, who is also the speaker, of Wilbur’s poem.
The speaker hears his daughter writing a story on a typewriter and wishes her “a lucky passage” using an easy metaphor of life’s struggles = cargo. He then interprets his daughter’s interruption of typing as her rejection of the too obvious metaphor before revising his comparison. He thinks of a starling that flew into a bedroom and kept trying to escape through the window again and again: exemplifying the resilience and grit he wishes for his daughter.
I always applaud my queer students who decide to come out and be visible to their communities. And, like the speaker of “The Writer,” I think of the difficulty and urgency that those students will face because they are people and because they are queer. The hope and pain of knowledge in that last stanza resonated with me through the applause as Charlie finished reading:
It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.
So now as I vote each day to support the success of his essay, I am also voting for a lucky passage for all the students who choose visibility, pride, and courage.