Sunday, July 29, 2012

When Facebook Gets Awkward ...

I've loved being on Facebook this past year.  For the most part.  As I've written before, it's given me another classroom (one without papers and grades and parent conferences and lunch duty).  But it's also given me a chance to connect with former students, many of whom I have not seen or been in touch with for nearly a half-century.  (Others I taught two years ago!)  And I am dazzled by the journeys so many have been on--the places they've been, the careers they've had, the slaps and caresses that life has given them.

I've seen, as well, how all of us are now scattered along the political and religious continuum--from Tea Party to Anarchy Party (I know: it's an oxymoron), from the devoutly religious to the equally firm atheist.  As my FB friends and followers of this blog have surely noticed, I generally stay out of the political and religious debates.  I want to stay in touch with everyone, for it's only by communicating that we have any hope of understanding one another.

So when FB friends go off on Obama or Romney, when they attribute all the happiness in their lives to Jesus, when they post scornful messages about religion, I tend to stay silent--though there have been a few times when I've responded personally and privately to people who post things I find troubling for one reason or another.

For example, the latest flap about Obama's saying "you didn't build that" involves, of course, a quotation taken entirely out of context.  As anyone who's read his entire response knows (link: Obama's complete comments), he was actually making the fairly commonplace point that all of us owe a lot to others--to family, teachers, to a country that encourages innovation and provides a safe and secure infrastructure.  He was saying, generally, what commencement speakers say every single spring: Be grateful.  It's amost a cliche ...

In my own case, sure, I can claim some credit for whatever success I've had.  But I also had caring parents who believed in education and who supported me; I had some wonderful teachers, some talented friends; I grew up in a home where money was tight from time to time (two teachers), but I was never hungry a day in my life, never was homeless, never went without health care, never was psychologically or physically abused, never lived in a neighborhood where I was afraid.  Moreover, I am a white Anglo-Saxon male brought up in the Christian faith--and we have been in charge around here since Jamestown, 1607.  I've never really known--except in the most superficial ways and transient situations--what it is like to be a minority.

Oh, and I also had the good fortune to be born in the United States during one of the most robust economic periods in world history.  The roads are paved; most bridges don't fall; the electricity stays on; the mail comes every day; police and fire departments are two blocks from my house.  As well as EMS.  And on and on.

So--yes--I've worked hard.  But, obviously--obviously--I did not do it all on my own.  That was the simple point the president was making.  It was a call for humility--and gratitude.  Not an insult.

But that flap really pales in significance to the one that's troubling me today--the business about gay marriage/gay rights and Chik-fil-A.  All of us have gay friends and/or family members--all of us.  Among my FB friends (former students and others), a good number are gay--and happily so.  A very close member of my family has been living in a gay partnership for quite a while now.  He is the happiest I have ever seen him.  Ever.

So when in recent days when I've seen from my FB friends a number of posts that proudly announce their presence in a Chick-fil-A--in tacit or explicit support of that company's president, Dan Cathy, who recently announced his opposition to gay marriage--well, it's bothered me.  A lot.  Once again--it's a question of using our capacity to imagine lives that are not, perhaps, like our own.  Understanding one another means having the capacity to imagine--the willingness to imagine--what the lives of other people are like.  An old story: It's easy to judge--to condemn, hard to understand.

(Oddly, one friend--a former student whose talents and heart I deeply respect--posted the other day about her frustations at being denied some opportunities because she was too old; moments later, she posted, proudly, that she was eating at Chick-fil-A and was happy to see all the business there.  The discrimination against her bothered her--against others, at least in this case, not so much.)

Not long after that wonderful film Four Weddings and a Funeral came out in 1994, the poet W. H. Auden (1907-1973) enjoyed a kind of resurgence.  In the film, you see one of the actors, John Hannah, reciting all of Auden's moving poem "Funeral Blues" at the funeral for his gay lover.  (Watch the scene on YouTube: "Funeral Blues")

Almost immediately, responding to a swelling public curiosity about the poem, Random House (Auden's publisher) issued a little paperback Tell Me the Truth about Love, whose cover bore a little sticker announcing--"Includes the poem featured in Four Weddings and a Funeral."

I saw the film the weekend it opened, and as soon as we got home, I found the Auden poem in one of our collections and set about memorizing it.

That Monday, in my middle school English classes I recited the poem to my students without telling them anything about Auden or about the poem.  I told them only that someone had recited it at his lover's funeral in that new movie they'd all been hearing about (none had yet seen it).

It was one of the most enlightening moments of my career.  As the poem proceeds, it's very clear that the speaker is talking about a man: "He was my North, my South, my East and West, / My working week and my Sunday rest, / My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; / I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong."

By the time I finished, it had dawned on most of the students what was going on.  He said that to another guy?


But then ... that means ... ?


And we talked for quite a while about the vast capacities of the human heart.  About how you can't "unlove" someone you love (it's not like unFriending!).  Asking gay men and women to reject and replace their loves?  It's as reasonable as asking you--heterosexual you--to stop loving the person you do and, instead, to love someone of the same gender.  Why?  Because we want you to.  Because we know what's right.  (Could you do it?  Of course not.  And why should you have to?)

And to deny gay people basic civil rights?  To celebrate and patronize a company whose leadership wishes to define marriage in such a way as to exclude some of my dear friends, some members of my own family, some beloved former students?  To me, it's the same as grabbing a fire hose in Selma in the sixties--and aiming it at other human beings. 


  1. You were my English teacher at Harmon Middle School in 1977 (if I'm not mistaken on the year). I was one of a pair of twin boys of a minority race (or a combination of minority races, which is another minority in itself). I was too young and immature to appreciate the type of educator that you were then and continue to be today. Although its long over due, I hope its not too late for you to accept this communication as a gesture of my gratitude. You were one of a few bright lights in the tunnel of insecurity and confusion that I found myself in those difficult years of adolescent adversity.

  2. Hi Dawn!

    GREAT article. A cousin (Andy Paul) shared it on his Facebook page.

    Would you mind if I add a link to this post off my blog? Naked is only a metaphor! ;-)


    Bill Esch
    Pigeon, MI

  3. Duh, I realized you're not "Dawn" after I posted the comment. ;-)

  4. I have a question for you, and I hope it starts a good topic. You state early on "As anyone who's read his entire response knows ... he was actually making the fairly commonplace point that all of us owe a lot to others". Later you state "Dan Cathy, who recently announced his opposition to gay marriage". This topic has hurt me more than any other on social media in the last 7 years.

    First and foremost, what he said is not something he "recently announced". It's the same message that he's stated for years. I met him in person in 2009, and he already had stated that he supports a traditional marriage. WinShapes was created to support traditional marriages, and is a faith-based institution that helps instruct couples on how to live a Godly life together.

    Second is that supporting something that is strongly marked in your faith and deeply rooted in your belief system is not the same thing as attacking the thing that is outside of it. He has not stated that he would (or does) deny anyone entrance to his store or employment this is homosexual. He has not done any hate crimes to attack anyone that does not believe the same way he does.

    It hurts me that so many people have taken the polarizing arguments on this. The media created a "non-news" story, blew it up, and folks are eating it up like candy. Smart People. People with an awesome sense of self and self worth. People that _know better_. Tolerance isn't about attacking others that don't believe the same thing as you, tolerance is loving them in spite of the differences. I cannot say that I'm perfect, because I know I'm a imperfect individual, and I'm not trying to convict anyone specifically. I realize that many will take what I'm saying personally and probably be bitter for it, and discount me as one of those crazy CFA lovers.

    What I hope is that people will realize that these minor differences are what make us special, and as a country our ability to find like people and have the _Freedom_ to live in harmony is a gift. What we are doing by squabbling will ultimately allow people to take these gifts from us, and our children. Once they are gone getting them back will take more bloodshed and agony to reclaim than any amount of fried chicken and waffle fries can make up for.