On my birthday this year, one of my past students, I'll just call her M, posted this on my Facebook page:
Happy birthday Ms. Kuhns.
Thanks for always giving me a chance and making me do my best. You changed my Life.
M is an amazing poet and was so very interesting to have in class. Given this, I could say that deciding to be a teacher was a choice that changed my life forever. And it has. However, there is another choice, a defining choice, that I made that surely affected my personal happiness for far too many years.
Let me go back to my high school experience. It was in a suburb of Chicago and, perhaps not unusual for the time, it was a bit homophobic. I remember once, a group of girls I was hanging out with started teasing each other about being lesbian. When the teasing came my way, I shouted, "Ugh! No way!" And a part of me died inside, for I knew, I was. But I let the lie carry me through the next thirty years.
Through two failed marriages I stared at the back of a sleeping husband and remembered what it was like to have a female form beside me. I could imagine the lovely swoon of a woman's figure, the line from the shoulder, swooping to the waist before gathering speed to the rise of her hips... No wonder my husbands complained about my sex drive. It wasn't their fault, they were just the wrong gender. It wasn't until my second marriage was over that I fessed up to myself.
This brings me back to my old student, M. I knew that she was a lesbian and for my newspaper class she was working on a spread about being gay in the world today. One day, I looked across the room and I thought that M seemed sad. I called her over to my desk and told her that I was so proud of her for being true to who she was. I told her that if I had been as brave as she was that I wouldn't of had bad marriages, that I would have come out of my suffocating closet... instead of waiting until I was 49. She nodded and gave me a small smile before returning to her desk.
I left that school to move to Los Angeles. At the end of the school year I set out an autograph hound for my students to sign. This is what M wrote:
Thank you for everything. You're my HERO. You've taught me it was okay for me to Live. You helped me through the hardest times in my life. You've saved me more than you know. I love you. Don't forget me Prunes!
Prunes was M's nickname for me, I like to think because it rhymed with Kuhns--as opposed to being a statement about my age. But that's part of the fun of working with teens... you just never know.
What I do know, is that M saved my life too. No matter what one's sexuality, being a teenager is just plain hard. But seeing someone press against the tide of public opinion and discriminating attitudes, seeing her strength and her vulnerability... gave me courage. I moved, started over, and met the love of my life, my partner, Jen. So thank you M. You are my HERO.