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Teenagers Need Grace

Photo by Sammie Vasquez on Unsplash

It’s the end of the grading period and my high school students are scrambling to turn in late work, which I always allow them to do, pandemic or no. And this is why.

I was a terrible student. From an early age I frustrated my parents and teachers because I was always on the verge of failing. Though capable, I was unmotivated to do anything that did not interest me. Nothing the adults in my life tried could make me more responsible.In 10th grade I was failing so many classes that my parents made an agreement with my guidance counselor to have all my teachers fill out a weekly progress report so they could monitor me more closely. One day I picked up the report from my counselor and she had written a note for my parents: “Congratulations! Melissa got the highest score in the school on the reading PSAT.” Instead of feeling proud, I was filled with dread. I knew the note alongside that F I had in English was going to get me in big trouble.

By the grace of God and the kindness of my teachers, I graduated high school with a decent enough GPA to get me into college, though my performance at UGA was less Summa Cum Laude and more “Laude Daude, we like to party.” Somehow I managed to earn a degree and talked my way into graduate school. Once I began studying topics that interested me, I became a motivated student with the grades to match.

Today I am thankful for the gift of being a lackluster student. When I look at my own struggling students I don’t assume they’re lazy. I look at them and see myself, and know there is always more to the story. Just because a student is capable of doing well does not mean they will. There could be a variety of reasons for this: trauma, lack of support at home, social issues, learning disabilities, or simply feeling unchallenged by the work, just to name a few.

So here’s how I roll: YES you can have more time on that assignment. YES you can retake that test. NO you do not have to explain, grovel, or beg.Over the years I have learned only students who are already motivated to learn get upset about zeros; those who don’t care about grades are unaffected. So giving them a zero because they didn’t turn in the assignment only teaches them that I am inflexible. It does not teach them to do better next time or be more responsible.

In the end, this is the lesson I hope to instill in my students: grace will come to you, even when you do not deserve it…because people are good, and the universe is benevolent. It was the grace of my teachers in high school and college that helped get me where I am. And now it’s my turn to pay it forward.

*A version of this piece can be found at Grown & Flown.

It took two weddings to make this marriage

Today is the anniversary of our second wedding. My wife Chantal and I had to get married twice because it was not legal the first time, and we had to travel to California to do so because it was still not legal to marry in most states at that time, including Florida.

Our LGBTQ forebears had asked politely for their rights and were denied, repeatedly. They grew tired of the social discrimination, abuse, and arrests (for such things as violating gender-appropriate clothing statutes) so in 1969, in response to a police raid at Stonewall, they rioted. For five days. Our people were so hurt and angry that they were ready to burn it all down. That was the catalyst for the gay rights movement. It took almost 50 years more but with the help of the Supreme Court and a couple more brave queer peeps (thanks Edie and Jim) we all finally have the right to marry.

It is because our ancestors and allies refused to accept injustice and were willing to fight for their rights that we are able to enjoy the legal and societal benefits of marriage today. I am so grateful. Regularly I am also reminded that we have so far to go. We can still lose our jobs or be denied housing because of who we are. LGBTQ people are at higher risk of dying by suicide or homicide than the general population. And there is a case currently before the Supreme Court that will determine if it is legal to bar LGBTQ folks from adopting.

Today I stand in solidarity with folks who are part of another historically marginalized group in this country: my Black brothers and sisters… not because I understand exactly what it feels like to be them, but because I believe we have a long way to go as a society in learning to fully accept those who do not look, believe, or live like the majority. We are all brothers and sisters, regardless of our politics, skin color, or orientation. And until all of us are free, none of us is free.

Why I’m Choosing People Over Politics

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

We are taught from a young age not to talk about politics in polite company, and for most of my adult life I thought this was ridiculous. Politics has always been personal for me. It wasn’t until 2015 that I gained the right to legally marry my wife in this country, and it was 2020 before workplace discrimination protections were put in place for me and other LGBTQ Americans. I have always been loud and proud about my political beliefs, partly because I knew I was correct and partly out of reverence to those who fought for the rights I’m now able to enjoy. 

I cannot begin to count the number of friends I’ve lost on social media over the years because of politics.  I’ve even developed strained relationships with a handful of friends and family in real life due to our extreme political differences. 

Perhaps I’ve gained perspective by being confronted by my own mortality through this pandemic, or maybe I’ve just mellowed in my old age, but I am ready to admit I was wrong. I no longer believe the most important thing in life is politics. It is relationships. And I am done putting my political beliefs ahead of relationships with people I love. 

How did we get to a place of such division in our country? There is a false dichotomy here that was born of our two-party system of government and is fed by the extremism that exists on both sides. On my side, for example, I have friends who believe voting Republican is an act of violence against LGBTQ people. On the other side, I have friends who believe voting Democrat will lead to baby killing and gun confiscation. Neither, in my opinion, is quite accurate, and this manner of thinking is toxic. As former U.S. Senator Jeff Flake said, “Tribalism is ruining us. It is tearing our country apart.”

We like our ideas black and white; everything should be clean, quantifiable, and easily placed in boxes. Yet the truth is nearly always nestled somewhere in the gray area most people avoid because it’s messy and complicated. 

I believe the only way to heal our country is for us to release our belief that ours is the “right” way and embrace a both/and way of thinking. There is room here for people of all beliefs and political persuasions, just as there is room for people of all races and cultures. But it is the insistence for us to be “right” the other side has to be “wrong” (and lately, not just “wrong” but “stupid”) that has divided us. 

My family has given me the opportunity to practice both/and thinking. My parents are staunch Republicans and even have a Trump sticker on their car. My friends are always shocked to learn this because they know what a bleeding-heart liberal I am. Despite this difference, I am very close to my parents; in fact, they live in the same neighborhood and I see them often. How do we make it work? In the words of Kenny Chesney, we “get along while we can, always give love the upper hand.” Our love for each other transcends politics, and I make a conscious decision each day to remember that. In this presidential election cycle that’s not easy.

I do not simply tolerate my parents’ political beliefs, however. I support their right to vote however they want. They were voters long before I was born and have seen 14 presidents lead this country so far. It would be arrogant for me to assume I know the “right” way for them to vote. I trust they vote using their heads and their hearts, based on the issues that are most important to them, just as I do. Truth be told, not all my beliefs fit neatly into a Democratic box and I know not all theirs fit into a Republican one, although we do usually cancel each other out at the ballot box. 

By embracing this new paradigm, I hope to model for my children that there is room in our family for both political parties. I want them to grow up to be free thinkers who can make their own decisions, and that includes choosing the party affiliation that best aligns with their beliefs. 

Politicians come and go, and political climates change for better and for worse, but a loving family and supportive friends are irreplaceable. Can we remember this as we head towards November? Yes, politics is still personal for me and I remain involved in causes that I care about. I still speak up when I see injustice and actively work to get my preferred candidates elected. But my new mantra is people over politics. President John F. Kennedy admonished: “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer.” What if being kind is the right answer? When faced with a potential political argument with someone you love, why not choose being kind over being right? I believe letting love lead the way is the only way for us all to win in November— and beyond.