I keep my guard up, my mouth closed, because I won’t forget that it only takes one student, one parent, to take it all away.
When I take the job teaching English at a small Connecticut boarding school, my parents ask when I’ll tell my colleagues I’m bisexual. I’m folding laundry in their house in New Hampshire, barefoot on the wood floor, wondering whether everything will fit in my car. It’s mid-summer and I realize I forgot to shave my legs in the shower. “People don’t have to announce they’re straight,” I say. “I’m not going to hide it. If they fire me over it, I don’t want to work there anyway.”
My mother ignores my response, sensing my defensiveness, and goes back to her crossword puzzle. (Who suggested I’d get fired?) Despite the fact that I’m over 30 and should know better, I don’t give her credit for the fairness of her question. This is an all-girls private school, after all, and I’ll be living on campus. I’m opening myself up to scrutiny much in the same way a straight man living in a dorm full of teenage girls would. Suddenly I picture girls running around in sports bras and tiny shorts and then looking to me for some kind of reaction, eager to have their worst fears confirmed.
Instead of worrying that I may have made the wrong choice, I imagine I’ll find an enclave of queers—women with shaved heads drinking kombucha and scarved men who take weekend trips to go dancing in New York. But when I sit through long, sticky days of orientation and meetings and lunches and deck parties, it quickly becomes clear that there’s only one other woman on campus whose sexuality is, well, ambiguous. She’s described to me as being “very ‘love is love’” (I wonder if this isn’t just a polite way of saying queer, as if something about queerness is inherently crude), but I quickly realize that she lives in a nearby city rather than on campus, and she is applying to graduate school. Her time here, according to all signals, is temporary. Everyone else has boyfriends and husbands, kids stuck to their sides like badges of their heterosexuality.
When you live at a boarding school, you enter into a bizarre contract in which your personal and professional lives blur together. You give your evenings to the students in your dorm, baking brownies for their birthdays, scolding them for leaving windows open in the winter, dispensing Advil in the middle of the night when their cramps wake them up. You lose a clear sense of where your life ends and theirs begin, and you wonder whether it makes sense that you have chosen, thus far, not to have children, since you are doing many of the things parents do anyway.
It makes sense, then, the way I slip into myself, becoming a version of myself I don’t quite recognize.
Despite years of sexual and political openness, gay marriage rallies and academic panels on intersexuality, I don’t teach The Catcher in the Rye from a queer perspective, or tell my advisees that one of the best things that came out of my college years was discovering my bisexuality. I don’t show my colleagues essays I’ve written about queer culture and lesbian othermothers as examples of my ability to write. I tell myself that I’m just trying to find some semblance of a boundary between my personal and pedagogical lives—that this has nothing to do with my sexuality—but that would be ignoring the thousands of tiny ways in which I am always on alert.
During my afternoon yoga classes, I elect not to do the hands-on positioning that many yoga instructors do, if only to prevent a student from getting the wrong idea when I adjust her hips in a down dog. I picture her going home to her dorm room after class, sitting cross-legged on her bed. She touched my hips, she tells her mother on the phone. It was…weird.
At a faculty event, someone’s boyfriend comments that a bisexual person “would sleep with anything.” Normally I would speak up, make a joke about having a Neanderthal at the table, say this is why I work at a school where men are scarce, aiming for a balance of critique and humor that leaves him laughing and chastened. But instead I hold my tongue and pretend I didn’t hear him. I realize, in an instant, that I would be more likely to call out such blatant biphobia if I didn’t sound like I was defending myself.
I’ve learned to glance to the side when I open the girls’ doors for nighttime check-in, just in case they’re changing. Still, they run around in sports bras and yoga pants, T-shirts with nothing but underwear underneath. They look like kids in their mother’s clothes, but they don’t know I see them this way. They don’t know the many languages of homophobia, one of which is sexualizing queer people in the most mundane situations. So I continue to look away.
I let students think that the woman coming into my apartment might be my friend or my sister. To my superiors I introduce her by name, as if her name speaks for itself, as though she’s some kind of celebrity. I clarify only when they ask, when it becomes awkward. I never lie, but I omit again and again.
My apartment, on the second floor of a brick dormitory in the center of campus, pulses with my sexuality, but I’m aware that much of this is invisible to students who don’t know to look for it. I try hard to control this at first. The poster from WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, a gallery show I saw years ago in Vancouver, stays, but the painting of the naked woman is relegated to my parents’ basement. My professional laptop is clean, but my personal one sports stickers claiming EVERYONE IS GAY and a cut-out of the state of New Hampshire branded with an equality sign. I figure I’ll keep the private one in my bedroom, and I do for a time, but soon enough it’s on my lap when a student enters my apartment. Soon enough, it’s on my lap at an English department meeting. Soon enough, it’s on the counter at the library as a tour walks by.
It feels separate from me, this stubborn desire to be seen. A part of me wants to warn people that I’m growing more comfortable. That I’m slipping—I’ve become an advisor to the LGBTQ awareness group on campus, I’ve made jokes in front of students, recommended they read Blue Is the Warmest Color, that they see Pride.
Still, I continue to look away when I check in on them at night. I keep my guard up, my mouth closed, because I won’t forget that it only takes one student, one parent, to take it all away.
I haven’t yet decided if this is a loss worth measuring.
Sara Erdmann is a New Hampshire native currently teaching English at an all-girls boarding school. She received an MFA in Writing from the University of New Hampshire and a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from Binghamton University. She lives on campus with her books and her dog, Frida Kahlo.