The Hidden Power Behind Stories of Triumph
His hopeless eyes drooped down a somber, lifeless face. There was no desire or curiosity in his smile, in his body. His mindset was written across his face. He had so clearly been subjugated to a point of succumbing to pain. He seemed to believe that there was no escape, and in a blind act of defiance and a subsequent need to be relieved from the pressure of society, he tried to harm himself.
At my previous school, a video about a boy grappling with coming out of the closet was shown to our class. To my memory, the class had never deliberately explored a topic like this before, and as someone who was in the closet at the time, how the video was treated in the classroom felt immensely important.
The clip followed a boy who capitulated to the universal pain associated with being in the closet, and in doing so tried to harm himself. As someone struggling with finding triumph in the process of being gay, the video demonstrated a lack of hope with few trends of optimism.
For some students, watching this video might have led them to an understanding for the process of coming out. But it left me on the deep end of disempowerment, one which was not accompanied by any subsequent story of hope.
From my perspective, this was a half-baked attempt at fostering inclusion, something that I encountered often at my middle school. So, as I joined Packer in the ninth grade, I was overwhelmingly relieved to know that this was, and still is, an environment where half-baked attempts to include the LGBTQ+ community are rare. And yet, I still felt drawn toward the idea of writing this piece as a way to acknowledge the importance of finding a balance between learning about oppression, as opposed to empowerment, in the classroom.
Reading literature about the disempowerment of the LGBTQ+ community is unquestionably valuable, as it sparks an environment where students can build empathy, and work toward the creation of a more inclusive community. But what can at some points be undervalued is the importance of examining stories of triumph.
Upper School English Teacher, Jonathan Wang, believes that, “All literature has conflict as a core element…the nature about that conflict does not need to be the oppression, but that is often times where we go…Doing this creates a portrait of an entire community that is defined only by the oppression. That is just not how life is.”
In Mr. Wang’s eleventh and twelfth grade “Queer Literature” elective, student Grace Warner-Haakmat (‘20) admits that when reading the book Maurice, she subconsiously expected to see a trend of persecution becuase of her experience with classic LGBTQ+ literature tropes that highlight opression. “It was in the back of my mind. I don’t think I was really expecting it…But I think that in my subconscious I was slightly expecting [to see a trend of persecution against the protagonist]”
Learning only about the suffering of subjugated groups can lead one to label those oppressed groups solely as victims. This “victim label” promotes a social pattern where victimization becomes a mechanism for condescension, isolating suppressed groups even further.
This is in no way to undermine the importance of literature about disempowerment, as doing it so clearly guides our decisions as thoughtful individuals. But rather, to speak for students who are seeking stories of empowerment, and feel that they cannot voice their wants.
Years ago, in that eighth grade class, I wanted to raise my hand, and in an act of honesty, voice the lack of hope that the video had promoted. But I was in a place, much like many closeted students, where speaking out would have been an act of outing myself. And sacrificing the “security” of being the closet, in order to question the video we watched, was not a risk I was willing to take.
Don’t wait for the one LGBTQ+ person to ask the question everyone is thinking, but rather, consider asking it yourself. Attempt to balance stories of oppression with stories of triumph, because sometimes those hopeful stories are the most inspirational for us as students.