Lessons Learned
Outside of School

Chapter 1

It was raining — not a heavy rain, just a light one — the kind we needed. It was forecast to continue through most of the next day.

So, outdoor recess was out of the question and I was stuck overseeing an indoor recess in my classroom. I had twenty-three rambunctious sixth graders who were looking at the clock eagerly. Most of them didn’t really care whether recess was indoors or outdoors, so long as it lasted the full half hour.

“Okay,” I said. “You know the rules: No running; no loud voices; snacking only at your desk; clean up quickly when recess is over. Now, have fun.”

Some of the students got their snacks from their backpacks. Others found board games at the rear of the room and spread them out on the floor. I really didn’t have to do much as they played chess or checkers or Monopoly or Connect Four, or any of the multitude of other games which I had collected from yard sales over the years.

It was early in the fall and this was our first indoor recess, so I sat at my desk observing. You can tell a lot about your students just by watching them interact with each other. There was Mason, who sat reading in the corner. There was Carolyn, who, with some other girls, was chatting about fashions and makeup. Makeup was not allowed at the school, but it was obvious that some of them had experimented with it outside of school. I could still see little bits of it that hadn’t been cleaned off their twelve-year-old faces.

Then there was Akram. I’d never had a student like Akram before. Oh, there were others who turned out to be gay, but in sixth grade they had hidden their budding sexuality well, perhaps even from themselves. Akram, on the other hand, did not. He talked, moved, and acted like a stereotypical gay boy. He hated sports but loved art and music. His hands were fluid, to say the least. His complexion was the color of caramel, and his almond-shaped eyes could be mesmerizing. There were a few other children of mixed races in the class. Everyone seemed to accept everyone.

Akram spent most of his time playing with the girls, and I was a little surprised he wasn’t with Carolyn and her friends. Instead, he was in a group of kids — girls, I noticed — in a corner who were talking about starting a school newspaper.

A school newspaper was published almost every year, and the sixth graders who worked on it took pride in what they produced. They interviewed classmates as well as teachers and children in other grades. Always, there was a puzzle in the paper. My only duty was to proofread the paper and get it copied in the teachers’ lounge. The school was not large, only two classes per grade, and we printed five copies per class.

That morning, Akram and his female entourage came to me and asked, “Mr. Travis, can there be pictures in the newspaper?”

“Do you mean drawn pictures or photos?” I asked.

“Both,” Akram said.

“Well, we’ve put in drawn pictures in the past, so I don’t see why not. If you want to use photos of people, you’d have to get their permission and a signed release form.”

“What is that?” Beth asked.

“It’s a paper that says something like ‘I give my permission for the picture taken of me on such and such a date to be used in the school newspaper.’ Then there’d be a place for the person to sign and date and a witness, usually a teacher, to also sign and date. I think you should know that a few parents have expressed their wishes that they didn’t want their child’s picture published, in which case we couldn’t use it even if the student okayed it.”

They thanked me and returned to their corner.

My other observation regarding Akram was that the other kids treated him like any other student. There was no teasing, no mimicking behind his back.

I did fear for Akram’s life the following year, when all the kids would go to a large, consolidated middle school in the city. There was more of a mix of kids from all sorts of backgrounds and races there, and some of them tended to bully vulnerable students.

Although gay, I had never come out of the closet to anybody but my family. When I was a child, I was fine and had a lot of friends through grade 6, but in middle school and high school I took a lot of bullying, and I never knew why as I wasn’t out. Apparently, some of the school bullies picked up something about me and didn’t let it go. I was miserable. Fortunately, in college I didn’t have a problem.

The reason I hadn’t come out as an adult was that I was living and teaching in a very conservative part of the country. If I was out, I feared that some school parents might have a field day trying to get me ousted because they saw me as a ‘threat to their children’. I wasn’t, of course. I didn’t perv on children. But I desperately wanted a man as a partner. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much of an idea how to get one. I had checked out online dating sites and had gone on a few first dates, but nothing came of those efforts.

Recess ended and the kids put away their games quickly except those who were playing Monopoly. They asked if they could put their game on the back counter so they could continue it later. I agreed.

Our school building was so old that it hadn’t been built with a lunchroom. During the lunch period students ate at their desks and then got out their recess games and projects.

As I watched them, I reflected on what a nice group of kids this was. They were neighbors and friends and often joined on the playground after school to play soccer or kickball or other games. Often in sixth grade, kids began some innocent flirting but that generally came in the spring. Until then, they were one, big, happy group and I enjoyed working with them.

The students interested in starting a newspaper asked if they could meet me after school, and although I had work to do, I readily agreed. I asked if their parents would worry when they didn’t get home right after school, but they assured me that they often went to each other’s homes on a rainy day and their parents didn’t start to worry until it began to get dark.

Our meeting after school dealt with questions they had come up with. How many pages could the newspaper be? How and when could they interview teachers or other kids? Did the principal have to approve the paper or each edition of the paper? What was the process for putting in pictures?

The meeting was less than half an hour, and I managed to answer all their questions. They decided that since it was supposed to be raining again the next day, perhaps they could do interviews during indoor recesses and lunch.


The fall term progressed smoothly. In November, teachers had four released half — days to hold parent conferences. The conferences always worried me a little because I never knew when I would be blindsided by an anxious or angry parent. In fact, that had only happened once in my years of teaching, but the potential was always there.

I had met Akram’s mother at back-to-school night. At that time, I didn’t know that his parents were divorced. One of the things I did during a free period after that meeting was to carefully read all of Akram’s documents in the office.

Akram had been born in Syria but as troubles mounted there, he and his parents moved to the States. His father was a writer, but the records didn’t say what he wrote. His mother owned a Middle Eastern shop in the city. Akram had begun school here in the second grade speaking no English. By the end of the school year, he was fluent in English. He had always done well in school.

My conference about Akram was with both of his parents. We discussed Akram’s progress and they both were satisfied with his education.

On a Monday morning in December, Akram burst into the room and exclaimed, “Oh, Mr. Travis, weren’t the Miss America gowns just stunning this year?”

“I’m afraid I didn’t watch it, Akram.”

“That’s okay. I taped it. I’ll bring it in tomorrow.”

The last thing I was interested in was a pageant that exploited the beauty of women, but of course I didn’t say anything. Instead I answered, “That’s very thoughtful of you Akram. Thank you.”

Sure enough, the next day he produced the tape and I promised to watch it.

That evening, I put the tape in my player and watched enough of it to be able to comment on the gowns.

I returned the tape and thanked him the next day.

Taking it, he asked, “Which gown did you like best?”

Fortunately, I was prepared for that and answered, “Miss Louisiana’s.”

Satisfied, he went to his desk, where he took out some papers he’d apparently been working on and wrote assiduously until I called the class to order.

Two days later, Akram handed me some papers and said they were for the newspaper. This time he had written a lot for a newspaper whose articles tended to be brief and succinct. I wondered how many typed pages we’d be looking at. The kids on the staff typed the articles, and someone, probably Akram himself, would have to type his, but I didn’t mention that at the time. I thanked him and told him I’d read the article after school.

Settling at my desk after the last student left, I picked up Akram’s papers and began to read. He’d written a complete review of the Miss America Pageant, including discussions of the gowns and the bathing suits. It was very well written, but I wondered if it belonged in an elementary school newspaper since it had nothing to do with the school.

I decided to pass the buck. Walking to the principal’s office, I asked her to take a look at the article. As she read, she frowned, and the longer she read, the more she frowned.

When she reached the end, she said, “This has no place in an elementary school newspaper. I’ll admit that Akram wrote very well, but the article just cannot appear.” I nodded and left her office.

Back in my room, I wondered how I could break the news to Akram. When I went to bed that night, I still hadn’t figured it out.

Driving to school in the morning, I continued to worry about Akram. I knew he had worked hard on the story and figured he would be heartbroken.

When he came into the room in the morning, I called him to my desk. “Akram,” I said, “I read your article and I was impressed by how well it was written. But I wondered if the subject really belonged in an elementary school newspaper.”

He looked worried.

“I took it to the principal to ask what she thought, and she said we couldn’t publish it, although she also commented on how well it was written.”

When I finished, Akram had tears in his eyes. I handed the papers back to him, and he went to his desk. He never said a thing.

During recess, which was outside that day, I saw him huddling with the rest of the newspaper staff. Before the period ended, they came marching to me like a bunch of young militants.

“Mr. Travis,” Beth asked. “Why can’t the article go into the newspaper? You said yourself it was well written.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Neither the principal nor I think it’s an appropriate subject for an elementary school newspaper.”

“Why?” asked Gail, another member of the staff.

“Well,” I said, “because the pageant glorifies the bodies of young women and promotes them as the ideal. Kids begin to think that if they don’t look like the contestants that they’re fat or shaped wrong or ugly. All of that is untrue, but young kids can’t figure that out.”

“That’s ridiculous,” said Beth.

“It really isn’t, and I hope you’ll think about that issue when you’re in middle school. But the fact is, the article can’t be printed.”

“But isn’t that censorship?” asked Holly. “What about freedom of speech?”

I sighed. I had wondered how long it would take them to get around to that. Aloud I said, “I suppose it is in a way, but in school, you don’t have complete freedom of speech. If you call someone a nasty name, you get called down for it. If you go around saying that you think we should burn the school down, then you’ll get called down for it.

“Furthermore, technically, the school is the publisher of the paper. And the publisher of any paper has the right to decide what gets printed and what doesn’t.”

“Well, I quit,” blurted Holly, and immediately the others did too. I was sorry to see the paper die, but I thought the kids were learning a valuable lesson about just what their limits were in school.

That afternoon, just as I was preparing to leave, I received a phone call from an indignant Mr. Midani, Akram’s father, asking for an immediate conference. I told him that the best I could do would be after school the next day. He reluctantly agreed and hung up.

I drove to the school in the morning, dreading my afternoon appointment. It was on my mind all day, and I certainly didn’t do my best teaching.

As the bell rang for dismissal, I saw Mr. Midani waiting at the door. The children exited except for Akram, who joined his father.

Father and son pulled up chairs and sat facing me. His father’s eyes clearly showed his anger. “Akram is very upset that his story isn’t going to be published,” he said.

“Yes sir, I know he is, but I had no choice.”

“Akram said that you explained the school’s decision but he didn’t understand it. You need to understand that he is different in some ways, and he is very sensitive to criticism.”

“Can you explain how he is different?” I asked. I had a pretty good idea, but I wanted to hear how his father described it.

“I’m amazed if you haven’t observed that Akram is somewhat…somewhat effeminate.”

Akram looked mortified.

“Akram,” I said, addressing the boy rather than the father, “I do understand that, and I’ve been aware of it ever since I first met you. I asked the question because I didn’t know if there was something else, something I hadn’t observed, that your father was talking about.”

Turning to his father, I said, “Akram is loved and accepted in this classroom and in this school. Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but I do think you need to prepare yourselves for when he goes to middle school. Sadly, there are bullies there who may give him a hard time.”

“Does the school permit bullies?” Mr. Midani asked, still sounding angry.

“The school district has a strict policy against bullying,” I said, “but the bully has to be caught before the school can step in.”

“Can’t the victim tell a teacher about it?”

“Yes, he can, but then he risks being ostracized by the rest of the students. Young teens have their own moral code, and part if it is that you don’t tell on someone. It’s a difficult rule for adults to penetrate.”

Mr. Midani nodded slowly. Perhaps he was remembering what his life was like at Akram’s age.

“Alright,” he said, “can you tell me what the school’s reasons are for not allowing his article to be published?”

I told him what I had told the children the day before. He struggled with understanding what I said, because, as he said, in his country people had a different view of women than they had here. Finally, he said to Akram, “Well, we are living here, so we have to abide by the rules here. Do you understand that?”

Akram nodded but there were tears in his eyes.

“Akram, as I said yesterday, I’m very sorry because your heart was really in your article and you wrote very well. Do you think that this issue is enough to kill the paper for the year?”

“I’m not sure,” he said. It was the first time I’d heard him talk all day. “I’ll have to talk with the rest of the staff tomorrow.”

With that, he and his father departed, and I sank sighing into my chair. I had to admit that Mr. Midani had not been at all unreasonable. Idly, I wondered if his family had encountered other difficulties adapting to their adopted country, but I had no way of knowing.

In the morning, Akram brought me a letter from his father. In it, the man thanked me for the conference and for caring about Akram, saying, at the end, that he had to accept what the school said even if he didn’t personally agree.