Hospitality—it’s a strange word, I tell my high school students one afternoon. What do you notice about this word?
It has the word hospital in it, says one. It’s a tourism word, says another.
What does it mean? I prod. How do we see it here at school? Here in this classroom?
You feed us, one laughs and points to a student I gave cheese to 10 seconds before. Remember our pancakes? another says.
In our Independent Living class, our final was to make a meal, and one group made chocolate chip pancakes.
Another said, In this class, we’re in it together. Another said, We’re comrades, like in history. Still another said, We get to be who we are because you’ve got an open mind. You express your gender, and we get to express ourselves.
The discussion that follows reminds me of my goal as a teacher: to be the person I needed as a teenager for the kiddos in my class.
I was brought up in a conservative tradition, where the idea of hospitality was considered of utmost importance. It meant welcoming the stranger. It meant no one got left behind. But as much as that ethos was discussed, I didn’t see it, and I certainly didn’t feel it.
I have known I am queer for as long as I can remember, and as a queer person in a stiflingly conservative space, I often felt a fraud, unable to be myself for the genuine and founded fear that I would be rejected. I asked my twin many times: Am I different? Am I maybe damaged somehow and no one has told me? Did everyone know a secret I did not? Was it obvious? Was I different and no one told me?
She said, Of course not. You’re you. I consider her word: You . . .
Yes. I am me, but I am also queer. Stranger. Different.
Working with exceptional youth and adults has been the bulk of my work since early college. I cut my teeth in the industry at a group home in Iowa for adults with disabilities. That experience showed me how to interact with my clients in a way that created dignity. If I am bathing or toileting an adult and am a jerk about it, there is no dignity. However, if I assist in a way that sees the action as a way to create dignity for a life function I have taken for granted, I am creating and holding space. Safe space.
The words “holding space” have come to be my rallying cry. They are my flag under which I fight. I strive to be the person I needed as a teen. I am a teacher for students with special needs. Those who learn differently, who are called strange or damaged in whispers behind thinly veiled hands to ears. I am a person whose gender is not so easily defined. That one teacher.
We are strangers in need of welcome, in need of space lovingly held.
In my class, my kiddos know I’m different. I am the only teacher who uses the honorific Mx. (pronounced mix). I am the only teacher who talks about my pronouns (they, them, theirs). For many years of my career, I have been the only “out” teacher in my school or academy. Since the advent of my teaching career, my first day of school is my coming out day. In each period, every first day of every year, I stand before the class and tell my coming out story. I explain my gender, my sexuality and my pronouns. I start with, So I’m not sure if you noticed, but I’m pretty fabulous. Too fabulous to be defined by one gender. We talk about safety in our class. We discuss our motto: We work for each other, not against each other, we are a team. As the year progresses, I tell stories when I hear students use derogatory words about gay people, stories of my past when coming out was unsafe. When I was surrounded by people bigger than me screaming gay slurs and throwing objects at me. So when you say those words in our room, I remember being unsafe. Is that who we are? What is this room? I ask. Safe space is their reply. Thank you for remembering, I say.
Students who have called my classroom home at one point or another have their own stories of belonging or, as is most common, not belonging. Some have diagnoses that leave them with little autonomy over their own privacy or their movement in the world or their most basic choices. Our room, our safe space, has become a refuge where learning occurs because we have the space to be ourselves, to make our own way, to exercise autonomy and to make our own choices . . . if even for only those 54 minutes a day.
In my work, holding space means being the person the kids go to when they don’t know who to ask for help. As their bodies change, they often ask me to help them figure out how to buy hygiene products. Some even ask how to buy a bra because they live with their dad. Holding spaces means feeding kids who don’t have food at home at the end of the month or taking laundry home for homeless students who are too embarrassed to come to school Monday with dirty clothes. Holding space means running laps on the quad with my kiddos in the rain during Saturday morning intervention classes to get our sillies out to be able to study. It means weeping with them at the death of a friend or parent or weeping with pride as I watch my students walk across the stage in cap and gown.
Holding safe space is constant work, constant negotiation, and constant struggle. To hold safe space is a holy work. It is a place of imperfection, a place where mistakes are made, where words are spat out, held still, discussed, recreated and redeemed. This holy space is also where questions are bravely asked and gently answered, Mx., can I get pregnant if . . . ? Will I graduate, Mx.? I heard a this thing on the news, Mx., is it true? It is a place where bikes and scooters are fixed, sweatshirts mended, wounds are patched, and at times when my kiddos become parents, where I hold babies and bottle feed while lecturing . . . simplicity made complex, and complex made simple again.
And that is where we find the beauty, in a blessedly imperfect space. A place to be ourselves, a place to belong as an outsider, a place to practice and live hospitality. A safe space. Home.
Mx. Sage McLeish is a high school teacher for exceptional learners, who’ve name themselves the MxTapes. Sage identifies as trans* and genderqueer, and uses the singular they, which infuriates and excites English teachers far and wide. Sage loves adventure, dressing like Clark Kent, teaching meditation, running miles with their students in the streets of Los Angeles, helping children organize their backpacks and adults their closets. They can be found drinking copious amounts of coffee, eating gluten-free donuts, and proselytizing from the gospel of George, their favorite Beatle. For those who are wondering, Sage holds a Bachelor’s in Humanities from Northwestern College and a MA in Special Education from California State University, Dominguez Hills. They are the owner of Sage Energy Work, a personal organization and energy work company.