I have mopped their tears, taught them to read, and visited them in the hospital. I have secretly purchased snacks, books, and winter jackets for them when parents were short on cash or forgot to send in the money. I have taught them about letters, numbers, weather, sharing, taking turns, and the power of story. I have carried young children when they were injured and explained big scary events in a way they could comprehend (active shooter lockdown drills, a neighborhood fire, the death of a student).
I have worked in public education for most of my adult life. I started out as a preschool teacher in Boston in 1987, making $16,000 a year — about $10,000 less than the median household income in the U.S. that year. During the dot-com boom, I was busy teaching kindergarten. During the bailouts and stimulus spending of the 2000s, I taught community college students how to become preschool teachers. Have I ever received a bonus? No. Not in dollars. In seeing growth and excitement in my students? Yes. There is nothing in life that makes more sense to me professionally than guiding children into readiness — readiness for learning, for life in our vibrant and complex society.
When I entered the world of public school teaching in 1990, I was nervous about being a lesbian educator. Would I have to stay in the closet and distance myself from colleagues? I was a fledgling teacher, using new, more progressive methods. I felt unwelcome and uncomfortable in the teachers’ room, where I stayed pretty quiet. By my second year, I found myself teaching kindergarten in a new, innovative public school that welcomed all — including me, as a gay teacher. By the time I left that position six years later and eight months pregnant, I was the recipient of scores of grateful letters from parents, a city-wide honor for being an out teacher, and three baby showers. The students made baby gifts, and the following month, the parents prepared meals for us after our daughter was born so we didn’t have to cook for six weeks.
I’ve been through many chapters in my life as an educator: preschool teacher, kindergarten teacher, special educator, community college instructor, and now literacy coach in an elementary school. Have I ever “turned a child gay”? No — we all know it doesn’t work that way. But I have had a hand in making them into better people. And I am fortunate to live in Massachusetts, where I have been protected as a queer educator by our state’s laws, where marriage equality was enshrined in law before the Supreme Court ruled on Obergefell. As I said to a fellow teacher in a workshop recently when she said she was “not entirely comfortable talking about gay lifestyles,” it’s a life, not a lifestyle.
Merriam Webster defines the verb groom as “to get into readiness for a specific objective.” Now the epithet being thrown at LGBTQ+ rights supporters (and LGBTQ+ teachers) is “groomer.” How ugly, how infuriating. There are hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ+ educators like me; we have enriched countless children’s lives whether some folks want to acknowledge that or not. We are educators who chose the path to teach, to light the way for the next generation.
They think we see children are prey? That’s dim-witted and dangerous thinking. We have braved homophobia. We have braved economic downturns, active shooter drills, pandemic teaching, and dismissive attitudes about our chosen profession. So we can teach all children. We don’t see them as prey. We see them as individuals, as children who are growing into their full selves. Let’s do everything we can to squash this latest calculated move — using fears about queer teachers to score political points for their empty agenda. Let’s make it clear exactly what they are doing: grooming the next generation to be fearful, paranoid, and divisive.
Here’s the message: Quit making us your prey. It won’t work.
Mary E. Cronin is a literacy coach, poet, and longtime educator who has taught in Massachusetts for over 30 years. She can be reached on Twitter @maryecronin.