Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Mr. Heumer: A Lesson in Pride

I mentioned a couple posts back that I was introduced to George Carlin's brilliant brand of comedy by one of my seventh grade teachers, Mr. Heumer and promised to write more about him. I had hoped to have this posted by Pride weekend, but what with my grad school preparations blogging has been on the back burner lately. Anyway, here it is.

Seventh grade is horrendous. I don’t care who you are or where you’re from, chances are seventh grade was the worst year of your life. It certainly was for me. But if you were very lucky, as I was, you had a Mr. Heumer to see you through it. Mr. Heumer was my seventh grade social studies teacher. True to his surname, he was good-natured and warm. Yet Mr. Heumer was considered an oddball for many reasons including a gnome-like appearance, a gimpy gate and perhaps most significant, rumors that he was gay.

If he was gay, and I’m pretty sure he was, in the greater scheme of gay culture he would have belonged to the bear set. He was short and stocky, with auburn hair and beard sans moustache trimmed into that Abraham Lincoln/Amish look. He walked with an limp due to a deformity in one of his legs which required him to wear an orthopedic platform shoe and drew attention to his stocky figure as he jockeyed to navigate the hallways daily through a sea of seventh graders. He had the worst sense of style of not only any gay man I ever knew but any other teacher at the junior high school–including the math teachers! He wore the same thing almost every day: blue, black or brown polyester pants and a navy blue Columbia Wrestling short sleeve crew neck pullover. On dress up days he wore a salmon colored polyester leisure suit circa 1974 in 1981. This was an item of particular ridicule from heartless seventh graders he taught--Gay Mr. Heumer and his pink suit. “It’s not pink, it’s SALMON!” he would insist.

Like his unkempt appearance, Mr. Heumer’s classroom also lacked the queer eye. His desk was cluttered with newspapers and paperbacks. There were none of the brightly colored bulletin boards, art posters or maps like in the other classrooms. His one attempt to dress up the place was a copy of the US Constitution on the otherwise bare cinder block wall in the back of the room. But none of that mattered, for Mr. Heumer believed that real learning happened in life--not in classrooms. For example, much of what they taught in seventh grade social studies back then was American Civics. So rather than read the chapter on the role of small business in the American economy, he had each of his classes create a small business. We had to choose a product to make and sell, were responsible for the manufacturing costs, the bookkeeping, manned the manufacturing or sales divisions, etc. We sold our products (usually holiday themed crafts as the lesson fell around November) in competition with the other classes and at the end of the term the class, or business, with the highest profits won the competition of free enterprise, such as it was in seventh grade.

The year I was in seventh grade, two small bits of theater history took place: The Fantastics, the longest running musical in history at the time, was slated to close after almost 20 years. And Rex Harrison would be returning to Broadway in his last revival of My Fair Lady. Not one to be tethered to the classroom, Mr. Heumer wanted to make sure that his seventh grade students did not miss the opportunity to see The Fantastics and Rex Harrison before they both disappeared forever. Tickets were booked for both shows. But rather than simply pile on a bus and head into the city to see the shows, weeks of preparatory work ensued. Including listening to the original cast recordings of the shows, reading the Greek myths of Pyramis & Thisbe as well as Pygmalion, the stories the shows are based on. And finally learning all about the origins of both shows, their context and significance in American culture and theater history–all in terms a seventh grader could understand.

But as I mentioned, it wasn’t all Broadway musicals and Christmas crafts in seventh grade. In seventh grade all the elementary schools in town were mixed together in the cesspool of Junior High. No one's social status was safe and everyone started from square one. It was the basest kind of survival-of-the-fittest social warfare I’ve ever seen. And I was one of its most serious casualties. It all began around the cafeteria table or maybe in gym class, some of the other boys were discussing which of the girls in our class was prettiest and by “prettiest” they meant which one’s boobs were most developed. The consensus was that one particular girl–let’s call her Jeanine--was the “prettiest”. This Jeanine had expressed some sort of crush on me in particular, and so I was asked my opinion on the matter. Well, I told them that no, in fact, I didn’t think Jeanine was all that pretty and, frankly, she dressed a little slutty for my taste.


You would have thought I published a cartoon of Allah in a Muslim newspaper. The fervor, the outrage, the threats of physical violence to me all in the name of Jeanine’s honor seemed akin to something that would start a holy war. As word spread it got uglier and uglier. But this was more than just schoolyard taunts, it took on a kind of mob mentality vengeance so that kids I never saw before were tracking me down in the hallway threatening to beat the crap out of me. Their faces were sharp and angry, their threats and voices seemed to come from a place that was dark and hate-filled. It became increasingly clear what the overall tone of these attacks were. After all, what kind of seventh grade boy objects to any girl with big boobs dressing too slutty? A fag. That’s what kind.

My introduction to homophobia was played out on the cruel stage of the seventh grade social hierarchy. It became so disruptive that I could barely get to class on time and it even continued during class interfering with lessons. After a few days of this my teachers began to fear for my safety. A meeting was held and I was assigned to all different classes but with the same teachers. The day that decision was made each of my teachers took time to talk to me after class about what had happened. They were all very kind and supportive. But mostly I remember they seemed shocked in their empty classrooms at the end of the day that a kid like me, who was nice and well behaved and worked hard, could become the object of such scorn and hatred so quickly.

But when I went to talk to Mr. Heumer there was a different feeling all together. He didn't seem shocked. Instead, there was a weariness there mixed with anger. He had thought about what he was going to say and it seemed important. What he said came from a place of one who had been battle worn with name-calling and ridicule his whole life. I sat down and he chose one of the student desks across from me. "You have done nothing to deserve this," he assured me. “And don’t ever let anyone think they have a right to treat you this way.” He took care with his words and continued, “Who you are is your own business and no one else’s. If anyone gives you a hard time about this, you come talk to me. You have nothing to be ashamed of.” He paused again debating just how much to reveal. “Listen,” he said "I know what they say about me. I've heard it for years. But let me tell you something, they don’t know the first thing about me. I know the truth about me and I have nothing to prove to any of these people.” He stopped a third time and added “Sleeping with a woman doesn’t make you a man.” This last part came as a shock to me. I had never heard any teacher talk that way. And as I left the room I remember replaying that last line over and over again in my head. To this day I still remember it. It was perhaps the most valuable lesson Mr. Heumer ever taught me.

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At 5:48 PM, Blogger judy said...

We should all take pride in Mr. Heumer. What a brave and wonderful teacher....would that there were many more like him.

At 6:08 PM, Blogger Dave said...

What a great story! And all the more amazing because this man had the courage to speak so frankly to a 13-year-old. And for that matter, to speak so openly about himself to someone whom he couldn't be absolutely sure was gay. Thanks for sharing!

At 7:32 AM, Blogger Jeff said...

Great story, great teacher, great line. Great post.

I'm one of the odd ducks who actually kinda liked junior high and high school. In Grade 7 or 8, I was crushing on one of my teachers - Mr. Brown, who was slim, hunky, beard and moustashe and spoke with a slight British accent. He taught history and was really into Indian artifacts... I spent countless hours dreaming of him and I going wilderness camping for a weekend, scouring the lakeshore for flint arrowheads by day and doing unspeakable things by night. :-)

At 11:56 AM, Blogger Diane said...

Amazing post -- well done.

At 12:36 PM, Blogger Peter said...

Beautiful post!

I also had a wonderful relationship with Mr. Heumer. He took great interest in my wrestling and he took me and Patrick C to visit the wrestling program at Columbia. In addition, he took us out to Montauk point. He was a lot of fun and Mr. Heumer will always hold a place in my heart.

Most important was Mr. Heumer's support in 7th grade. I was being bullied severely by an insane kid named Jimmy. Despite fighting Jimmy and hoping that the whole damn thing would be overwith. Jimmy and his cronies taunted and hounded me for days which turned into weeks. I was at my breaking point. I was filled with fear and Mr. Heumer could easily see that. He asked to talk to me after class. He sat down with me choosing a student's desk next to mine and provided me with great words of wisdom. Not unlike yours, except there was nothing about sleeping with women. I think he knew that was not my issue. But the theme of being true to one's self and staying strong in the face of hatred came through. Letting me understand bending to the will of others is unacceptable...etc. I was in tears by the end of the conversation and he gave me a hug and told me it was going to be okay. I love that man and all that he did for me. He was much more than an ordinary teacher. He understood that boys at the age of 13 have a million questions running through their head and somebody needed to help guide them through the process.

In the end, I resisted Jimmy's advances. I was not going to provide him with the entertainment that he and his cronies sought. I chose to simply "not fight" after having fought two previous times before. If you have ever seen a cat or dog kill something, you notice they leave it alone if they view it as dead. This was my strategy. It worked. Heumer's guidance is the only reason that I was strong enough to just not fight anymore.

Thank you for reminding me of this great man.

At 1:13 PM, Blogger Jonathan said...

Wow! After all the secrets 'n stuff you and I have shared over the years, I don't think I recall knowing about this one. Now I think I see where you get some of your strength and "moxie" on how to deal with the crap that life throws your way. (Of course, being Carl and Judy's kid helps a lot, too!)

Going back just one year, I have to apologize (if you'll let me and if it's not too late) for holding that "Who is gayer -- Michael or Jonathan?" contest, which I believe I won in a landslide. Sadly, it's often easier to single out those perceived as weaker and more insecure (whether or not they really are) when having to face our own weaknesses and insecurities.

Luckily, we grew past this, and our friendship has truly stood the test of time. I will never forget your words of encouragement to me when you came out to me in January 1988: "I will be there to support you when you are ready to come out, too."

Twenty-something years later, I think you might win that infamous survey today -- by your own admission, you're an artistic actor/singer/florist, and I'm a geeky IT consultant whose idea of matching clothes is, "Well, they're both blue, aren't they?" Still, this geek is awed by the accomplishments you have made in your life, the mountains you have climbed, the valleys you have endured, and I couldn't think of someone better to call "friend".

At 8:33 PM, Blogger Jane T said...

Great piece Mikey - He was one of the good teachers, I have to say that as for teachers with no flair for fashion, Mrs Steinberg - hello what not to wear?
True about 7th grade and middle school in general - we should be rewarded with badges of honor for graduating 8th grade - that school in particular -

At 8:17 PM, Blogger Todd HellsKitchen said...

Awesome post!


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