A good student, a great teacher cheated by bigotry

Fran Kelsey

May 07, 1991|By Fran Kelsey

HE WAS a bright kid, from a large, loving, religious Maryland family. With a flair for drama, he starred in high school shows and jumped at every chance to see Broadway and touring productions. For a career, this above-average student chose teaching . . . so he could share his fascination with literature as well as become a director of those spring musicals he loved so dearly.

He became a teaching superstar. Youngsters flocked to absorb his knowledge in class, seek his counsel about their young lives and have an introduction to musical theater that bordered on the professional.

Parents admired his charisma and the way his enthusiasm for learning made an impression on their youngsters. They streamed to the auditorium twice a year for his big, splashy productions of "Gypsy," or "Bye Bye Birdie" or "Mame."

But with every educator's honor, every community accolade, every rave review, he shut the door tighter and tighter on his own personal options.

Fearing the bigotry of ignorance, and valuing his teaching career above all else, he pushed his personal life into the closet. He shunned the search for a rewarding, long-term relationship, no matter how he longed to settle down, for fear his homosexual orientation would be discovered. He feared the intolerance of the community. He feared homophobia so vicious that he could lose his beloved job.

Driven by this fear, he made do with casual encounters and short-term liaisons. And in the early 1980s, sometime between the holidays and the spring musical one year, when a virus that no one warned him about was running rampant within the homosexual community, he had what would turn out to be a fatal attraction.

A short time later, of course, AIDS crept into the news. The story was finally too big to be ignored by the media, the government and the community. Where had the press been when the story was still small enough that coverage might have saved many lives?

Semesters, and spring musicals, passed. He threw himself into his work, stirred the imagination of a whole generation of youngsters and sent numerous graduates off to Broadway careers. He got involved in local theater, allowing himself the pleasure of playing roles he had always longed to perform.

But one day he developed a cough that wouldn't quit. And then pneumonia. Substitute teachers had to take over his classes. Another actor had to fill his shoes for the show. He was fighting "a bug." He'd "be back soon," he promised the kids. He was "fine," he told his friends.

Apparently he denied, even to himself, how ill he really was. "I'll be back at school in three weeks," he told me. "I'm going to pack up a few things and go to my parents' house and let them baby me for a few days."

Less than two weeks later he was dead.

Not only did bigotry help kill him; bigotry forced him to face his illness almost completely alone. Bigotry cheated him out of the comfort of friends and family during the emotionally trying years since his diagnosis.

He wasn't the only one cheated. His stunned friends, who had no idea he was so sick, are bereft at the opportunity to tell him how much they cared; his students, who arrived at the funeral in a procession of yellow school buses, are left to make sense out of rumors, fears and erroneous information. The community has lost the chance to reconcile the fact that one of its most effective public servants was also a homosexual.

When the truth, which this generation of savvy students suspected anyway, was concealed with an obituary listing "heart failure" as the cause of his death, another generation of youngsters got the message that having AIDS -- or being gay -- is something to be ashamed of and concealed.

Although we'll always wonder, I suspect that if it weren't for the horrors of bigotry, this consummate teacher would have jumped at the chance to teach one last lesson by standing up for gay pride. How sad he never got the chance.

Fran Kelsey writes from Laurel.

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