What I could offer wasn’t life changing—it was just a break, a little time to gather the strength to keep going.
Mean GirlsQueer as Folk
Orange Is the New Black
The gay boys could spot me, too. I had all the obvious tells: long hair, a lisp, and I rolled my eyes during the Pledge of Allegiance. As they walked into class and realized their teacher was gone and I would be in charge, I swore I could see their shoulders relax. Those times, I wanted to run up to them, give them a hug, and say, “I don’t know what your life is like, but once you graduate, I promise you won’t have to see any of these people again! You have so much to look forward to! Look at my life!” But we were prohibited from touching our students, and, anyway, I’d be lying. I mean, I had two jobs and lived with my mother. I was not fit to be an inspiration.
Instead I let my personal life remain a mystery. I hoped my gay students projected happiness onto me the way I’d projected my trauma onto them. I hoped that, as they watched me from the corners of their eyes (exactly how I used to watch queer adults as a teenager, trying to figure out what my future had in store), they imagined I had everything they could possibly want: a giant apartment, friends to brunch with, the boyfriend and job of their dreams.
They didn’t need to know what was actually waiting for them after graduation, that one of the reasons I didn’t have a more “adult job” was because I couldn’t think of many places to work where my being gay wouldn’t be A Thing. It was possible, and probable, that after high school they’d encounter the same workforce that I was navigating, one where they would have to wipe off their nail polish before handing in résumés, deepen their voices during interviews, either play up their queerness and be the token or water it down so they wouldn’t be “too gay.” That is, if they didn’t already work beside me at the mall . . .
I don’t know if they bought my act, but I do know that throughout my entire stint as a sub, I never heard a student picking on another for being gay. I hardly think that was because homophobia didn’t exist anymore, but because the straight kids must have picked up on my queerness too and knew that I wouldn’t have allowed it in my room. This might have made me feel good about the work I was doing, yet I knew that the second their permanent teachers returned, things would go back to however they were.
As a sub, I saw most students just once. That wasn’t enough time to do anything substantial. I couldn’t teach them to unlearn any shame they may have had. I couldn’t protect them forever. Even if I wanted to make a “difference,” it would have to be in fifty minutes or less.
Then again, it occurred to me that the people who had made the biggest difference to me growing up were the queer adults I’d seen in passing at the grocery store or restaurants. Queers who seemed to be living full, satisfying lives despite how small and bland mine felt.
So I kept up my performance of happiness, smiling and writing my name in cheerful letters on the board and leaning into the persona of “cool sub.” In math, I encouraged naps. In science, we learned how to use the classroom TV. The one time I taught gym, I remember seeing a gay kid dragging his feet to the flag football field where their permanent teacher had instructed me to send the class. That day, I gave students the option to walk the track. What I could offer wasn’t life changing—it was just a break, a little time to gather the strength to keep going.
And when the school day ended, I went to my car, changed into sandals, and drove to my other job at the Flip Flop Shop, where the air always smelled of coconuts. On my breaks, I took naps in the back room, listening to the Jimmy Buffett music piping in through the overhead speakers. For a few minutes, it was almost like I was on a yacht with the old rich dude of my dreams.
Edgar Gomez (he/she/they) is a Florida-born writer with roots in Nicaragua and Puerto Rico. A graduate of University of California, Riverside’s MFA program, he is a recipient of the 2019 Marcia McQuern Award for nonfiction. His words have appeared in Poets & Writers, Narratively, Catapult, Lithub, The Rumpus, Electric Lit, Plus Magazine, and elsewhere online and in print. His memoir, High-Risk Homosexual, was named a Best LGBTQ Book by Harper’s Bazaar. He lives in New York and Puerto Rico. Find him on Twitter @OtroEdgarGomez.