The Teacher Learns A Lesson: Coming Out In Class
As a high school teacher at Friends Seminary in New York, John Byrne has taught hundreds of students. Recently, he spoke with a former student, Samantha Liebman, about the years before he became the teacher he is today. For one thing, his classrooms were very regimented.
"I would make the kids line up before they came into class," he says, "and then they would stand by their desks and I would say, 'You may sit down when I sit down.' They said, 'Good morning, Mr. Byrne.'
"I was very strict, because I was afraid the kids would discover I was gay," he says.
Byrne, 56, taught English, a subject that proved to be minefield for a teacher who was trying desperately to keep a secret from his students. As he recalls, "some gay scene or character would come up, and I would start to blush."
He was always frightened, Byrne says. But then, in 1991, "I decided to march in the St. Patrick's Day parade," he says. "Because they refused to let the gays march, and I thought, 'I've got to take a stand.' I just wanted to be myself. So I went and marched with them."
Back in class the day after the parade, Byrne's 10th-grade students wanted to know how he had spent the day. Teasing their teacher, they accused him of going out and getting drunk.
"I said, 'I was not!'" he recalls. He told them, "I was marching in the parade."
That led to the next question: Who had Mr. Byrne marched with?
"And I said, 'With the Irish Gay and Lesbian Organization.' And they said, 'Well, why were you marching with them?' and I said, 'Because I'm gay!'
" And they were so kind. They saw that I was nervous, and they helped me along," he says.
That day changed Byrne's life, and his career. He says it made him a better teacher.
"You know, it had hurt me to live in the shadows," he says. "And then when I came out, it freed me to teach. It made me better at helping kids who had their own particular secrets."
And the students repaid him for his trust, as well.
"Two years later, that class that I came out to, they asked me to be their graduation speaker," Byrne says. "And I talked to the parents about how proud they should be of their children, for having taught me and helped me through a really difficult time in my life. It was a wonderful turning point."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jasmyn Belcher. Recorded in partnership with Friends Seminary.