I want to tell you about a Mississippi teacher.
I’ll call her Hannah.
Hannah is a middle school language arts teacher from central Mississippi. She’s flat out brilliant. I remember when I first met her, we were in this little conference room building in Starkville- basically a shed next to the Old Creamery- at a summer program for the Mississippi Writing/Thinking Institute.
This cat Hannah- Look- at a time when I was still trying to figure out how to get my students interested in stringing together a couple of paragraphs, she was putting out hundred-page digital literary magazines of student work twice a year. Professional quality, too. Just astounding to witness.
The year after that, I was asked to be a trainer in a statewide program of teacher training series for MDE. At the “Training of the Trainers,” Hannah sat next to me. She said we were the oddballs of the group. I knew why I was an oddball- I was way out of my league in this arsenal of educators- but Hannah loved to show off that graceful personality of hers. She made me feel like I wasn’t the only oddball, even though she was one of the most gifted teachers in the room. Back then I was convinced she was going to conquer the world from her little Mississippi classroom.
That never really panned out, though, because Hannah no longer lives or teaches in Mississippi. You see, Hannah is married to another woman.
Those two sentences should have nothing whatsoever to do with each other. But in 2016 Mississippi, they do.
I recorded a phone interview with Hannah two years ago. I wanted to write a feature story about her for my blog. It was supposed to be about her strategies at building relationships with students where she worked, at a charter school in a nearby state. She excels at creating safe, productive classroom community settings that break down racial and economic barriers. She’s a middle-class white lady whom her black, inner-city students flat-out adore. I wanted to share her story with teachers here, because I felt that if any teachers could benefit from knowing how to let honesty transcend race and class, it’s Mississippi teachers.
We were knee-deep in a conversation about how she first started training teachers all around the country, and how she appeared in a video made by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, when I asked her why she left Mississippi. It changed everything. It changed the course of the interview. It changed me. Maybe it changed her, I don’t know.
She took a few deep breaths, joked about how honest she really wanted to be if I was going to write about it, and then she let me in on her life.
She told me how hard it is to be a gay woman in the deep south. She regretted how far Mississippi was from extending domestic partner benefits to her spouse. She told me how hostile some work environments are for LGBT teachers. There is no employment protection here- she could be fired simply for being gay.
More than anything, Hannah told me how hard it was to be an effective instructor and mentor to students if she couldn’t fully be herself. She simply couldn’t do that in Mississippi. Now- elsewhere- she’s able to speak frankly with teenagers about why careless invective like “faggot” and “that’s gay” are hurtful to people, because she helps them understand why it hurts her. She’s able to relate the racial discrimination they sometimes feel, to a different type of discrimination against her family. Her relationships with those kids makes them kinder, wiser, more thoughtful people. The irony is, the wonderful relationships she builds with her students- which I wanted to share with Mississippi teachers- was something she had to leave Mississippi to find.
That 2014 interview haunts me now, because I hear the hopefulness in my younger voice that Mississippi would make progress- that later, the next year, the effects of Obergefell v. Hodges would start trickling down to create a safer environment that would maybe, just maybe convince teachers like Hannah to start coming back. Now, Governor Bryant is about to sign into law House Bill 1523, a bill which affirms religious sentiment, but also affirms every bigot’s impulse to make Mississippi an unlivable place for the LGBT community.
I’m not sure this law will hold up in Federal Court, but it doesn’t matter. To keep teachers like Hannah, you have to make actual progress from where we’ve been. You have to actually take steps to create a better environment for ALL Mississippians, where every one of us feels welcome. But we’re doing just the opposite.
I’m telling you this not because I think I know better than you, or because I’m trying to change your mind about homosexuality, or because I want to advise you on how best to live out your faith. I’m just telling you so you know, for a fact, that one of the many reasons your public schools are last and getting worse is because you adopt policies that push good teachers away. Wonderful, brilliant, fantastically gifted teachers like Hannah are leaving Mississippi because they don’t feel welcome here.
It’s happening. For real. People talk all the time about wanting to attract the best teachers to Mississippi. Well, right now, we’re bleeding. With teacher salaries what they are in this state, we simply cannot afford to add more reasons for teachers to leave.
Since Governor Bryant has decreed April Confederate Heritage Month, here’s our Confederate Heritage in a nutshell: We’re refusing to follow the lead of the rest of the country, again, and we’re headed for defeat, again. I have not been able to figure out where we think we’re going on this ship of bigotry and division, but I’m telling you right now, if we do not turn it around, it’s going to sink. And it’s going to take our beloved state down with it.
If you’re fed up with 50th, you’ve got to be fed up with Mississippi’s anti-LGBT climate. It will hurt Mississippi students. It will hurt Mississippi’s future.
In the case of my friend Hannah and the thousands of Mississippi students she could have reached during her career, it already has.
James Comans is an 8th grade science teacher in Southaven and contributor to MSEdBlog. His views are his own and do not represent the views of any other entity.