It’s probably worth noting that my alma mater, The Haverford School, was then and is now an all-boys school. It was not known, in the 1970s, for being particularly compassionate toward those in the culture who are different.
And so, when the Headmaster, Joe Cox, asked me to speak at Haverford, I was cautious. I thought– okay, what about this does NOT sound like the kind of dream you’d wake up from, screaming? You’re back at the podium of that school, after your sex change. Before you is a room full of creatures like the ones you knew back in the day. Oh, and by the way: did I mention that in this dream, you’re also horribly old?
I thought about all this for about five seconds, and then I said to the Headmaster: Sure, why not?
Why would I agree to such a thing? Well, because in addition to all of the above–which is no small amount of baggage, to be sure– I also have tremendously warm memories of that school as well. The teachers– many of them, anyhow–were amazing. And the friends that I made then I have kept. It’s fair to say that I liked school–as much as anyone does–that I loved all that reading and the care of the teachers and the comraderie of my ne’er-do-well partners-in-crime. So why would I not want to go back and see what the place has turned into? Surely I, of all people, ought to admit that all sorts of things are capable of surprising changes.
Still, when I woke up yesterday morning, in my old high school bedroom (I’m living back in this area for the fall, taking care of my mom) my very first thought, was the very same one I had forty years ago, in that very same room, first thing in the morning. Oh shit, I’ve got to get ready for school.
I admit I was kind of freaked out as I headed over there, following the same route I used to drive to school every morning from 1970-1976. I passed all the old landmarks: there was the place my sister went to school. Over here was the place where I’d totalled my car on the first day of my senior year. I was thinking, why did I agree to this? Is it that I just can’t say no? Or is it that even now, I am still seeking some sort of approval? That I crave standing up and speaking my truth out loud in these hallways, even if that truth is being spoken about 40 years too late?
I parked my car and headed over to the Headmasters office.
As the Headmaster ushered me in to my first meeting with students, I found something else that had changed: the meeting was with something called the Diversity Council. There was a group of students of color, students from around the world. No one outed themselves, but would I have been stunned and shocked if anyone had? I would not. They were this remarkable group of boys: articulate, respectful, curious, full of sparks. At the end of my forty minute meeting with them I thought, pardoning the expression, Holy Cow, man. This is not your father’s Haverford School.
Then I was ushered into a Sixth Form English classroom. It’s worth saying that Sixth Form English was just about my favorite thing on earth, back in the day. And some of the boys were sitting in their desks just like I used to– leaning back in my chair, my long legs way out in front of me, tie askew. I remembered being in Mr. Hallowell’s class, back in 1975, and listening as he opened the gate to the works of poets that changed the way I saw the world: Keats. Blake. Coleridge. Eliot. I still have the textbook Hallowell used, “The Major Poets.” I have carried it with me to every home I’ve ever lived in, have taken it with me in my backpack and suitcase around the world.
The boys in that class had read my books. Carefully. They were full of questions: curious, skeptical (in the best possible way), interested.
Next stop: coffee and pastry with–ta-da– my old teachers. Four of them still work there. One of them had the ROLL BOOK FROM 9TH GRADE BIO, 1972. He showed me the long line of grades for BOYLAN, JAMES: 85, 72, 60, 29, 75, etc. I thought, I got a 29 on a quiz? Seriously? My final grade for the year: 79. A C+. I said to my old Bio teacher, “I’m so embarassed. A C plus!” He replied, merrily, “Jenny, remember that in 1972, a C+ was “above average.”
And finally, it was on to the theatre, where all the boys lined in to listen to me speak. Was I jumpy? I was when I started. I thought, this is just like that dream– I’m back in my old school. I was crazy to do this. And then I was introduced, and i strolled across the stage, and I started to talk.
After that, I read the piece from the new IT GETS BETTER anthology, coming out in March from Penguin. And then it was Q and A time– and the boys peppered me with good questions. Which I fielded, tried to answer as best I could.
When it was all over, the following thing happened: the boys LEAPED to their feet, all 300+ of them, and cheered like I was Elvis. It was one of the most astonishing moments of my life. In all the many ways I had imagined this morning might conclude, this was never one of the scenarios.
Then the Headmaster came out on stage and gave me a medal. Or a coin, I don’t know what to call it– but it has the school’s shield, along with the words: Honor. Integrity. Courage.
It took me exactly no time at all to speak into the microphone in the voice of the Cowardly Lion: Look what my medal says. Courage! Ain’t it the truth? Ain’t it the truth!
We adjourned for lunch with my old teachers, a few old classmates.
As I sat there with my old friends and teachers, I thought, with amazement, how the world is full of wonders. Full of unexpected transformations. Not only my own, but even in places like this. We have all come so far. I thought of those remarkable young men from the Diversity Council I’d met that morning, and smiled. I thought of that Paul Simon song: I believe in the future, we will suffer no more. Maybe not in my lifetime, but in yours I feel sure.
After which, I was left to wander around the old school, alone with my thoughts. As I walked around the place, listening to the sounds of teachers teaching, musicians practicing, I suddenly heard a set of footsteps behind me, running down the hall, moving further and further away. Someone was late for something.
I turned around. But there was no one there.