Saturday, May 21, 2016

My Retirement Address: A Transgender Legacy

At my retirement party last night, instead of going with the more normal antics of having a colleague speak for me, making jokes about me, my crazy quirks, my career, etc., I decided that I'd just speak for myself. After all, I've tended to be outside the norm all of my life. Why stop now? What follows is an annotated version of the speech I gave to my colleagues and to fellow retirees, some of whom retired before I even transitioned:

Several weeks ago I started to notice that someone was messing with all of the clocks.
Usually they move normally, you know, tick tick through the days, a little faster, sure, as spring gets here, but a few weeks ago I started realizing that entire weeks were passing in minutes. And I looked back 33 years and saw my 26-year-old self shaking Art Kleck’s1 enormous hand and feeling that I was already a part of something warm and inviting in the very first interview with Bob Metcalf 2, and I can’t for the life of me figure out how I got here so fast.

I knew right away I’d retire from this school in 30 or 40 years. I just didn’t know 30 or 40 years could go by so fast.

Of course there was another thing my 26-year-old self didn’t know that day as I continued my interviews with Jay Criche3 and Pie4–because I was coaching soccer back then–and others. I didn’t know that the me who retired wouldn’t be a whole lot like the me who was handling those interviews. And not just for the usual reasons like I’m older and maybe a little bit wiser and more experienced and a whole lot flabbier. Not even for the superficial reason that I had no clue back then that I’d be a redhead when I retired. No, this was something my 26-year-old self could only have considered as a possibility in his deepest fantasies, because he had long since given up on the possibility of it ever happening. Yet somehow it did.

Before I transitioned, I started telling select colleagues about it. Partly because I was scared to death and needed to talk, and partly because I had come back to school that fall about 50 pounds lighter and looked like a walking skeleton and several people, including Brenda Perkins5, told me they had been worried I had AIDS, so I guess sex change was, you know, a relief. I know it was to one of the two “out” gay men then on staff in the math department. When I told him, he laughed and said, “Well, I guess that takes the pressure of of us.” 6

Pretty much everyone, though, told me the same thing about transitioning. “You can’t do that in Lake Forest.” Which of course wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear. But I said, basically, “Why not?” I figured there were only two possibilities: they’d keep me on or they’d kick me out. Why should I kick myself out? As I told everyone: I’m going to give them the chance to do the right thing. 18 years later, it’s clear that they did.7

If you weren’t here then, I’ll just say that it was a crazy first day of school. Lots of news vans lining McKinley. Reporters grabbing kids to interview. Really nuts.8 And I stood at the front of my classroom in a skirt and top welcoming everyone in, and they came in and sat down, and there was whispering, and I quieted them, and I said, “Well, I guess you’ve probably noticed that a few things have changed over the summer.” General tittering. “Yes,” I said, “I moved the teacher’s desk to this side of the room.” And they all laughed, and that was that. Time to start poetry or whatever.

Kristen Carlson9 asked me last year what I hoped would be my legacy at Lake Forest High School, and I thought: gosh! Legacy. That’s a gigantic word. Am I leaving a legacy? Am I supposed to? In what way? I mean, most teachers make an impact, right? But then we retire, and I’ve been around long enough to know the actual legacy we leave: three years later the last of our little freshmen graduate, and all we become is fading memories in the minds of former colleagues and students. We are not part of the bricks and mortar here; we are very important while we’re here but then we leave and become simply history. Unless we’re Dave Miller10 and they name theatres after us.11 But they’ve run out of unnamed theatres. Maybe they could name the RMA lobby after me? Is it a legacy when they walk all over your namesake? It might be a perfect one: I’ll get the space where everyone is tired and hungry and chatting with each other and just wishes to be entertained. Sounds just like a classroom. But I have directed 37 plays and musicals here. I’ve given a lot to our theatre program since the mid-80’s. But still I suppose not: if I have a legacy there, it lies in the kids who were once here and are now doing incredible things in theatre, like Ann Noble, recently inducted into our Wall of Fame, or Alex Timbers, Tony-nominated and highly lauded Broadway director. And journeymen like Jay Reed12 and Adam Pasen13, once mainstays on our stages and now working actors in Chicago and LA. They are my legacy.

So maybe I should consider that my legacy lies in teaching? I mean that’s logical; it’s my job, after all. And I have tried over the years to be innovative and cutting edge, from my early 90’s adoption of technology to my now more than one-decade-old paperless classroom to experimental things like Capstone Projects14 and my current gradeless classrooms.15 Overall, though, all of this simply facilitates the basic thing I’ve been doing all along, which is what we all do: interacting with kids, working with them in groups and one on one. That’s what has always made this thing worth it to me. I could spend entire days conferencing with kids about writing and be happy. I could spend entire days talking with them about literature and be happy. Hell, I could spend entire days just talking to teenagers and be happy. And I know, because they’ve told me, that I’ve helped a lot of them. Is that a legacy?

Yes, for individuals who have gone here, I suppose that things I’ve done in my classroom and in theatre have had some significant impact. But if I am truly honest, I guess the most impact I’ve had on this school has come from something far beyond my control: the pure accident of me being me. It’s been said to me enough times by now in notes from students and parents, in class evaluations, in emails, etc: you don’t know how much it has meant just having you here. When I transitioned, everyone said what I was doing was “brave,” and I deflected it by saying that I didn’t think it brave to do the only thing that it was possible for me to do. But brave or not, I set myself up as a potential object of criticism and derision. That in fact did occur from some of the more conservative teachers at the time and some of the kids who didn’t know me. And for years Thor16 had to work my schedule around parents who refused to let their kids be taught by the freak in the English Department. And yet: you don’t know how much it meant just having you here.

I was the first teacher to do this. In the whole country.17 We were the first school to allow it. Even today, 18 years later, it’s news when it happens. And for almost two decades, matter of factly, Lake Forest High School has had a transgender teacher on its staff, a sign to every kid who was different that different is OK. I’ll take that. Now that is a legacy.

You know, it’s funny: when I was 26, I was already calling myself 30. When I was 30, I was already calling myself middle-aged. I was on a fast track to live out my life as well as I could, as fast as I could, and then, whenever it happened, check out. But now, I’ll be 59 on the last day of school, I’m retiring, and I have an entire life ahead of me to live. And I’m looking forward to it.

Thank you.

End Notes
  1. Art Kleck, principal of Lake Forest High School West Campus the year before I arrived (‘82-’83), moved into the Dean’s office at East Campus when the two consolidated in my first year. He was known, along other things, for the unusual size of his hands.
  2. Robert Metcalf served as LFHS’s principal and superintendent for the first several years of my tenure. He was a hands-on superintendent who spent his days hanging out in the hallways talking to faculty and to students, and he seemed to know every single one of them by name.
  3. Jay Criche, English Department Chair and director of plays and musicals, served as my initial mentor in both capacities. When he retired, the department paid tribute to him with skits and even with a song parody based on Man of la Mancha, which combined two of his loves--musicals and Don Quixote (though he never liked that particular show for reasons I never quite understood).
  4. Larry Piemontese, known as Pie to virtually everyone, coached soccer here for I don’t know how many years. I coached both boys’ and girls’ soccer for ten years at LFHS before giving it up to go full time into theatre.
  5. Brenda Perkins replaced Jay Criche as English Department Chair and served in that role well into the 21st Century. Whereas Jay was the professorial type of chair, Brenda was a more collegial, earthy, get-your-hands-dirty type. Both were extremely effective. In addition, it was Brenda’s pregnancy leave in 1983-84 that created the opening (originally for one year) that got my foot in the door at LFHS, so I owe her a lot.
  6. Interesting side note: it should have done that, but both of them were gone within two years.
  7. I’ve never really known why. My suspicion, fueled in part by rather overt actions by the administration to find “reasonable” actions to take against me in the months before my situation became official (but when everyone understood and no one could legally say that they already knew), was at the time that their lawyers had told them that they simply had no other legal option. I’d been there fifteen years, I had tenure, and I had a trail of stellar evaluations (one from just the previous spring). But if they did support me out of legal necessity, they did so vehemently. From the first, the school was outspoken in its support for me. It defended me against any aggression, verbal or written. (Thank goodness there were never any that were physical.) In fact, it was a long time before I even knew the extent of the support they were giving me against bigoted community members. I definitely thank them for that.
  8. In the middle of summer, I had pretty much insisted that the school send out a community letter acknowledging what was happening. We all knew that the press had had the story since March and had been sitting on it, waiting confirmation. I told the principal that there was going to be hoopla on the first day of school no matter what, but if she wanted to lessen it she had better get the mass uproar out of the way over the summer. She did, and the radio and TV talk shows and news were done with their feeding frenzy by the end of July. So what happened on the first day of school, predictable as it was, was far less of an issue than it otherwise might have become.
  9. Kristen Carlson is my current (and final) Department Chair. She has only been at LFHS a couple of years but has established herself as fair and attentive to the needs of the teachers.
  10. Dave Miller ran the theatre tech group at LFHS for...I’m going to go with an eon? He even directed a few shows himself. He was a certified icon until his second retirement. Yeah, that happened. I don’t understand it either.
  11. They named the black box theatre after him...while he was still working here!
  12. Jay Reed was a major player on the stages in the early 90’s and has been working as an actor in Chicago since then. Recently he appeared in the lead role in Piven Theatre’s Dead Man Walking.
  13. Adam Pasen was another major player--in the late 90’s--and has been working as an actor and aspiring playwright ever since. His hilarious play, BadFic, a takeoff on the phenomenon of fanfiction, played to full houses in Chicago last year before he decided to take a chance and move to LA.
  14. Capstone projects are massive end-of-the-year presentations that are designed by the teacher to take the place of a final exam by tying together everything the student is supposed to have learned and linking them to a student’s core interests. I’ve been doing them with my juniors since 2011 and they’ve been the best part of my year.
  15. In my last two years of teaching, I decided to experiment with a Gradeless Classroom. Our former Director of Curriculum, Lauren Fagel, and I worked out how this would occur, and I’ve been handling all of my courses in this framework ever since. It has been revelatory. Students find that working for themselves instead of for a grade makes them work harder than ever and learn more.
  16. Thor Benson, long-retired former Math Department Chair, has been the keeper of the schedule for a long time. I owe him a debt of gratitude for his behind-the-scenes work in the first several years of my transition.
  17. As far as anyone could tell at the time. There was no real internet in 1998 and no WWW. I did as much research as the fledgling net would allow. I found a teacher in Minnesota who had only been allowed to return as a librarian. I found a teacher in Seattle who had been forced to take two years off and then been shuffled to another school in district where she did mostly clerical work. I found someone in the Detroit area who was in the process of transitioning and was under the impression that she’d be able to return in some capacity to her former school after taking the next year off. And I did find two Vancouver-area teachers who had been able to transition successfully in their own schools, though it was never clear about whether they had needed to take a break. In any case, it seemed clear that I was and would be the first teacher in the USA to transition without a break on the job. That is what the press was all about all summer.


Cliff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cliff said...

Congratulations on your impending life change, please know that you, Karen, have made a positive indelible impact on LFHS, its students, faculty, staff, the community at large and our LGBTQ community.... i laughed and remembered my interviews with Art, Bob and Dave while reading about your account. You are very courageous for going forward with this life change and i am confident you will overcome any adversities and you will be accepted in your new role by your friends, colleagues, former students, and the community. I look forward to meeting the "new" you maybe lunch....
Thank you, Karen for touching my life.
Christine Grost


it's your hair that i notice first
streaked with morning
it frames your face
you lying there eyes closed
soft breath not quite there
i follow its path as it bends the sheet
and i can touch you there
touch what i feel is you
in the spark of daylight
you'll rise
pull on the wrinkled shirt from last night
say something you think is beautiful
drink some coffee
from behind my paper
and drive away,
leaving a kiss on my lips
and a hole in my heart
where a fire ought to be

Favorite Films

  • The Wizard Of Oz
  • Amelie
  • The Princess Bride
  • Casablanca
  • Annie Hall
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • All That Jazz
  • Citizen Kane
  • Love Actually
  • Moulin Rouge
  • Big Fish
  • When Harry Met Sally
  • Almost Famous
  • Bull Durham
  • Notting Hill
  • Apocalypse Now (Redux)
  • Magnolia

All-Time Favorite TV Shows

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Gilmore Girls
  • M*A*S*H
  • The West Wing
  • The X-Files
  • The Daily Show
  • Ally McBeal
  • Picket Fences
  • All In The Family
  • Seinfeld
  • The Mary Tyler Moore Show
  • Star Trek
  • Firefly
  • Wonderfalls
  • Northern Exposure
  • Get Smart
  • The Dick Van Dyke Show
  • Twin Peaks
  • The Larry Sanders Show
  • Monk
  • Felicity
  • St. Elsewhere

Current TV Shows I Enjoy (in no particular order)

  • Perception
  • Major Crimes
  • American Horror Story
  • Louie
  • Suits
  • The Newsroom
  • Falling Skies
  • Franklin and Bash
  • Veep
  • Scandal
  • Fairly Legal
  • Girls
  • Don't Trust the B---
  • Justified
  • Portlandia
  • Psych
  • The Middle
  • Person of Interest
  • Happy Endings
  • Hart of Dixie
  • Real Time with Bill Maher
  • Nikita
  • Raising Hope
  • Castle
  • Drop Dead Diva
  • Covert Affairs
  • Elementary
  • Rizzoli and Isles
  • Revolution
  • The Last Resort
  • Alphas
  • SNL
  • Revenge
  • Community
  • Suburgatory
  • New Girl
  • Once Upon a Time
  • Grimm
  • Nashville
  • Downton Abbey
  • Smash
  • Homeland
  • Fringe
  • Glee
  • Haven
  • Community
  • Warehouse 13
  • Modern Family
  • Vampire Diaries
  • The Daily Show
  • How I Met Your Mother
  • The Colbert Report
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Leverage
  • Rachel Maddow Show

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