This is the official website for Project '79, the college preparatory alternative at Westfield High School. We've chosen to use Tumblr and various other interactive social networks in order to reinforce our mission to challenge and engage our students in ways relevant to their lives.
(in honor of Emily Style’s retirement from Westfield High School)
The cheerful banner was the talk of the faculty breakfast on the morning of the graduation ceremony. Had I seen it? Did I know anything about it? Wasn’t it cool? No, no, and yes! I went out as directed to the corner of the front lawn, smiled, and looked for clues about who might have put it up. Too small to show up in the photo, a small note identified the sign-maker only as a graduate from ‘06 who promised that the world would give our best energy back to us.
“WE LOVE YOU ALL, CLASS OF 2012.”
Though the poster’s message included everybody, it was clipped to a gay pride flag—a symbol that has periodically ruffled some feathers here in colonial Westfield. However, by the time I took the picture, it had already survived three hours in a very public location, and it was going to last the day intact. Something about these two signs together—the new hand-lettering on a rainbow flag overlapping the solidity of the carved blue and white WESTFIELD HIGH SCHOOL—got me thinking that I needed to honor a promise made several years ago to Ms Emily Style, a valiant colleague who is this year retiring from WHS so that she can focus on work with the national organization she co-directs called SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity).
As someone who supported the mission of the Gay-Straight Alliance since arriving at WHS nine years ago and whose 41-year span in teaching has championed the importance of diverse narratives, Style several times requested that I prepare a short history of our GSA, so that students especially can have this example of how change happens locally. I usually replied that such a document could be useful, but I wondered how it would enter the public record so any and all interested people could see it. With my own Project ‘79 students this year impressing upon me the value of Tumblr to such an extent that it has become our official web presence, here and now seem right to accept Ms Style’s request.
THE WHS TRADITION OF SOCIAL JUSTICE
Our Gay-Straight Alliance was officially organized in the fall of 2000, but its roots stretch back decades before that. Since before the Civil Rights movement, socially conscious WHS educators and students have used social studies and literature discussions to explore problems of equity and discrimination. It is dangerous to single out individuals, because our school’s tradition of intellectual freedom as exemplified by an uncensored newspaper and wide-ranging curricular choices is the legacy of many administrators, teachers, parents, Board members and students. However, two essential figures in the story are Ms Paula Alida Roy, English teacher and department chairperson from 1972 to 1999, and Dr Robert G. Petix, principal from 1980 to 2006. Roy tirelessly challenged students and colleagues along a gamut of social justice issues, but is most remembered for her advocacy in women’s studies. Petix for his part embraced controversy, envisioning the school’s place in a vibrant democracy as a locus for informed, reasoned debate.
THE HUMAN RELATIONS COMMITTEE (1998-1999)
Paula Roy had recently published an article on confronting classroom homophobia in the spring of 1998 when Bob Petix asked the WHS faculty to consider the experience of gay and lesbian students, charging us to form a Human Relations Committee. (Though sexual orientation was the explicit focus from the outset, the uncertain climate of the time commended a less explicit name for the group.) Chaired by Petix, the committee was initially composed of faculty only, but students were soon solicited to join as members. The group met throughout the 1998-1999 school year, addressing various concerns related to bias discrimination in the school community.
In December of 1998 a program called “Season of Light: Spirit of Inclusion” included nearly 40 presentations offered by 17 WHS faculty members, as well as guests from PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and the Rutgers Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Alliance. The four-day festival treated topics from social stratification and hate crimes to images of gays and lesbians in literature and film. The range of offerings allowed people with differing levels of comfort around issues of sexuality to get in where they fit in, hearing about a straight mother’s initial rejection of a lesbian daughter, for instance, or the relationship of French poets Verlaine and Rimbaud, or a gay student’s challenges in a college setting. Positive feedback from students, faculty, and community members persuaded us that WHS was ready for a GSA.
LIEBERMAN AND ORBACH FOUND GSA
In September 2000, students Josh Lieberman and Molly Orbach approached a group of teachers about advising a Gay-Straight Alliance. Quickly gaining approval from administration, the GSA made page 1 of Hi’s Eye after coming out Club Day with flyers for its first meeting—7 p.m. on Wednesday, October 4th, in the WHS library. Not knowing how the club would be received by the larger community, we advertised a “faculty advisory board” of seven members, rather than a single adviser who might become a lightning rod. The original GSA mission statement has gone almost unchanged for twelve years: “The Gay-Straight Alliance is a group of gay and straight students [revised to “people”] committed to addressing gay and lesbian concerns at WHS, including the prejudice against homosexuality that places people at risk and impinges upon the dignity of every person in our community. The Gay-Straight Alliance seeks to serve as a vehicle for dialogue, support, and education for its members and the larger school community.”
WINNING COMMUNITY SUPPORT
As we have advised over a dozen GSAs at schools in NJ, NY, and PA, the key to winning broad-based support is to stress that GSAs make safer environments for all students through upholding basic human dignity and respect for all members of a school community. The reason a “special” organization is required is to serve a group facing special risks: Young LGBT people especially can experience intense feelings of isolation and alienation that can lead to dangerous behaviors (visit GLSEN for more information). Though many young people face bullying and harassment, LGBT kids are less likely than racial minority members, for instance, to have sympathetic family members or other readily identifiable sources of support.
THE DAY OF SILENCE
Since 2002, the GSA has participated in the Day of Silence, a national event founded by Maria Pulzetti, a student at the University of Virginia in 1996. On average, 100 to 200 WHS students and faculty take a voluntary vow of silence during one school day each April in solidarity with those who feel silenced by anti-LGBT bias. In preparation for the first observation, the GSA built a coalition with the WHS Student Council and members of a peer-mentoring group called The Connection, informing these other organizations about the event and inviting them to participate. Our first year went so smoothly that since then we have used only PA announcements, advertisements and a customary reminder letter for faculty. Each DOS observation ends with an open meeting for all participants to debrief about the experience. Though there have been two incidents in the past decade where a student was struck as a result of participating in DOS, the WHS administration and GSA addressed each case directly and immediately, in the spirit of the two victims’ belief that the incidents demonstrate why the Day of Silence is necessary.
BI-MONTHLY MEETINGS AND OTHER GSA EVENTS
The GSA usually meets 15 to 20 evenings per year, for about two hours. Baked goods are welcomed, but not required. The purpose and vibe of the meetings changes with the membership and with what needs to be done—some nights we’ve written letters to companies urging them to reconsider anti-LGBT hiring practices; some nights we’ve played board games or watched movies (The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a Halloween season favorite); some evenings are totally given over to discussion. For discussion-based meetings, there are two ground rules: 1. No assumptions about others. 2. What is said at the meeting stays at the meeting (unless it involves harm to self or others).
In its first dozen years, the GSA has fulfilled its mission of dialogue, education and support through a panoply of programs and activities. From sharing first place for best float in the annual November Homecoming Parade (2001) to the controversial “Gay Pops” lollipop fundraiser (2003) and the annual gay-friendly Gayla dance each June (since 2006), there have been plenty of playful expressions of high school pride. PFLAG members have appeared before various WHS audiences at least six times to address the challenges of accepting gay family members. The GSA twice teamed up with the political discussion forum Iraq Survey Group to discuss legislation including gay marriage. Guests including Princeton University professor Jeff Nunokawa and actor/playwright Ellen McLaughlin have given college-level presentations on sexuality in the arts.
We have found it important for the WHS GSA to maintain a public profile through advertising (and in recent years, a Facebook group), because we know that some students who may never attend a meeting during high school contact us after graduating to say how much it meant to them that the group was there, and that there were SAFE ZONE signs throughout the building.
GSA AND PROJECT ‘79
If you have read this long, you may be wondering why this history is being published on the p79 website. First, for the Class of 2013, this is my junior research project, about a controversial topic and posted in a public forum. For the general audience, while there is no formal connection between the GSA and the alternative college-prep program at WHS, there is some overlap: Since 2001, when I began teaching in p79, my p79 classroom 166 has been the location for the GSA’s evening meetings. I coordinated the GSA until 2008, when I began coordinating p79. At that point, mathematics teacher and p79 staff member Mr Martin Maruschak stepped up to lead the group; and just this spring Ms Ellen Muir (p79 mathematics) and Ms Dani Fletcher (p79 English) volunteered to carry on while Mr Maruschak devotes increasingly more “free” time to his doctoral studies. Though the coincidence may extend no further than this, GSA and p79 are two organizations that help WHS address the needs of all students, each one committed to recognizing that “there is more to me than what you see.”