Willie Edward Taylor Carver, Jr., was named Kentucky Teacher of the Year and was honored at the White House this spring. But despite the accolades, he may not return to class next fall.
Carver, who teaches high school and college French and English at Montgomery County High School in Mount Sterling, Ky., is on sabbatical this school year and is questioning his future as a teacher given the wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation across the country. He spoke to Education Week about teaching as a gay man in rural Kentucky and why recent efforts to restrict LGBTQ student rights are dangerous. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I grew up in Appalachia. There were times of extreme poverty: no electricity, no running water. The school was a place where we could eat. Having so many issues of violence, addiction, poverty, despair – school wasn’t that. The school was a place of light and hope. My teachers not only expanded my world, they injected light and love into it. They gave me shoes [they bought with] their own money.
I have about 100 first cousins. I was the first to go to university. This whole journey is because the teachers pushed me. There has never been another [career] option for me – that’s what I want to do with my life.
I’ve always been gay as can be, but my freshman year of teaching [upon the completion of a master’s degree, in 2010], I couldn’t be. In Kentucky, you must have an administrator sign to obtain a teacher’s license. And an administrator took me into an office and said, “You’re going to be crucified. No one will protect you, including me. You will not get a teaching license if you are openly gay. I moved to New England for a while, but wanted to come back South because I’m from the South and love Kentucky. I did it on my own terms.
You know, we were actually making progress as a country. I have been openly gay. For the most part, people accepted. And then it kind of changed, both on an individual level for me and on a national level for all of us, probably four or five years ago. I’m not saying it directly [former President Donald] Trump himself caused these things, but I think he became a symbol for people who thought they were recovering something that had been lost. And I think for them what’s been lost is the feeling that America is heteronormative and that homosexuality is wrong. Therefore, they felt emboldened.
Things I thought were in the past weren’t. The bans started to happen. The effect this has in real time on the classroom is immediate. Now you’re in for a riddle when a student says, “Hey, that Amanda Gorman the poem was beautiful. And you have to say, “Well, when we read it – and we’re going to read it – we’re going to have a backlash because it’s a black woman talking about unity. And in America, for some reason, equality is a bad word now. In America, for some reason, a black woman talking is a bad thing. And it will be taken seriously.
These students now view the world in very different terms than they would if these things were not happening. What they understand is: “My existence is a threat. My existence is somehow immoral.
This year, the administrators told me twice, “nothing racial”. As if that meant anything. I don’t know what that means. I don’t think anyone in Florida knows what “age appropriate” means.. [Editor’s note: A new law in Florida bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for grades K-3 and says that those discussions with older students have to be “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”]
[Recently, a Kentucky music teacher], Tyler Clay Morgan, wrote on a board: “You are free to be yourself with me. You matter.” He wrote it partly because he knew some of his students needed this message. And the students decorated the board in delightful ways – with pride flags, other flags , anything that somehow represents who they are so they can feel valued. This has led to horrible death threats [against Morgan]. Its administrators sent an e-mail to the parents saying, in rather ambiguous terms: “I have been made aware of this incident. … This is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. … You can feel free to share this comment if you wish.
It wasn’t clear what was [considered] unacceptable, [the message on the board or the death threats]. It creates absolutely dangerous – unfathomably dangerous – working conditions for someone whose sole purpose was to tell students, you matter. [Editor’s note: Morgan resigned from his teaching job. His district’s superintendent said in a statement that he didn’t have an issue with the written message but didn’t support classroom conversations that “went far beyond the music curriculum.”]
I don’t feel safe going back to class. My identity as a human being is a teacher. Whatever I do and wherever I go, I will be a teacher. … But I think more and more, why am I in class? Because I think it will change things. I think it will be a force for good. But what is the effect? If I have to, every few weeks, stop and undergo some sort of survey of what’s going on in my class, I won’t be mentally capable of doing this job. And what do my students see? A stressed and unhappy LGBTQ adult. I don’t think that’s what they need to see.
Anti-LGBTQ bills are dangerous
I have seen many suicide notes – messages in the middle of the night saying goodbye – from college students who thought there would be no place for them in this world. We were able to obtain intervention both immediately and in the fullness of time for any student who contacted me. I’ve never lost a student, and that’s something I’m very grateful for, given the suicide rate of all young people and especially LGBTQ youth.
We say, in very concrete terms, to these students that there is no place for you here [in school], where we force you to be eight hours a day, 200 days a year, you may not exist. People may call it hyperbolic. But if at any time of the day you have to stop and ask yourself, “Am I allowed to talk about this part of myself? », you do not exist.
I couldn’t count on one hand the number of teachers who have broken down crying over the insurmountable task that is going to be to protect the children that people like Marjorie Taylor Greene [a Georgia Republican congresswoman] attack. I don’t know how we do it other than just ignoring these rules. No one will allow a child to be harmed, even though the law says we should.
One of the most beautiful moments that I lived as a teacher dates back probably four years ago. I had a group of French 1 students who, at the end of the day, said to me, “Can you stay behind? They closed the door, and they had this box. I opened it up, and it’s just a bunch of random young adult novels. I go, “What is this?” And they said, “College was so tough because there was nowhere to go. But our parents don’t consult the books we look at. So they basically swapped out these books about LGBTQ people so they could create a space where, if only for a moment, they felt normal.
And they said, “You’ve created such a big space here that we don’t feel like we need them anymore. So we wanted to give them to you to remind you that you made us no longer dependent on them. That’s how big it is. Especially when we talk about rural areas where these children are terrified to exist.
LGBTQ children are the only children we knowingly send home to be abused. We know from the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, that the things that people do to these children, sometimes even in their homes, are dangerous. [Research shows that LGBTQ young people whose parents tried to change their sexual orientation are about twice as likely to attempt suicide than LGBTQ young people who reported no conversion experiences.] We know these things, yet we always send them there. And if we now make school a dangerous place, where are they going to exist?
Tyler Clay Morgan was a major traumatic moment, not just for LGBTQ people, but for people in rural Kentucky who are tired of gross injustice being ignored. What is the authority figure that comes in and says, “We don’t do that anymore? No one’s coming. Nobody comes to save Tyler. Nobody came to save Tyler. I probably know five LGBTQ people who were laid off this year, seemingly at random.
I just had this moment where I realized, OK, it’s over. I’m not going back. Or at least I can’t go back the way I never did. There was immediate mourning. I was heartbroken and I wrote [on Twitter] what I felt.
I’m a Kentucky Teacher of the Year because our process starts in an urban area with progressive people making the decision. Do I think for a second that this distinction would have come if it had to go through even my building first? No. I acknowledge the privilege I have of holding this position of State Teacher of the Year. I have to use this privilege and take advantage of it somehow. What I’ve tried to do from the get-go is build on that by being completely authentic, … begging anyone who will listen to protect trans kids, protect black and brown kids, protect learners English speaking because no one is really approaching the door to protect them.
I think [my LGBTQ students] feel that the rest of the world doesn’t know they exist. That LGBTQ children in the country are a squeaky wheel problem for many administrative teams, and completely invisible to the rest of the world. This is the message. The policy does not support advocacy on their behalf. Politics does not support acknowledgment of the pain they are going through. And unless we can recognize the pain they’re going through, we’re not going to solve it.