It was early in my second year at Pine Cobble School. Though all my students had arrived in the classroom, it wasn't yet time for class to actually start and I was mentally going over my goals for the day while the students, all in eighth grade, talked among themselves. One of them was going on at some length about what a pain his mother was, and a second, whose parents were divorced, jumped in with “You think you've got it bad? I've got two mothers!” A third student, caught up in the moment, topped that with “Oh yeah? Well, I've got three mothers!” There was a brief pause and then the second student said scornfully, “What are you talking about? You can't have three mothers!” The third student, whose parents were also divorced and whose mother was in a lesbian partnership, looked at me with a note of desperation on his face. “I think,” I stated unequivocally to the class, “the boy knows how many mothers he has.” My student's face relaxed into gratefulness as two other students nodded approvingly and the second boy's face struggled through confusion for a few agonizing moments before bursting with realization.
There's no question that we set a tone in our classrooms, and that tone can make all our students feel welcomed. Or not. The choice is ours. Of course, if we really and truly love all our students there isn't really a choice. And with each choice, one act at a time, we can build a welcoming classroom culture that endures from year to year. One keystone moment for me was the first day of my third year at Pine Cobble School. I was going over the usual course outline and classroom routines with my sixth grade French class when a student raised his hand and said, “I heard you don't let people say 'You're so gay' in your classroom.” “That's right,” I responded warmly and with a smile. He nodded and smiled back, and I thought back to the first time someone had used that expression in my classroom and I had responded firmly but quietly, “Please don't say that again.” “Why not?” the student asked and, taking this as a genuine question and not a challenge, I answered, “Because I have friends and relatives who are gay and the expression is insulting.” I didn't have to have very many more conversations before the expression disappeared entirely from my classroom. And now, it was clear why.