By Nikos Giannapolous, the 2017 Rhode Island Teacher of the Year
“When I think back to my time in the White House, I will not remember the person seated at the desk.”
On Wednesday, when I met the president as Rhode Island’s State Teacher of the Year, I did not know what to expect. After a lengthy security process, we were welcomed into the Roosevelt Room where we each met Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. Shortly thereafter, we walked into the Oval Office. The man seated at the desk read prepared remarks from a sheet of paper and made some comments about CEOs and which states he “loved” based on electoral votes that he had secured. He did not rise from his seat to present the National Teacher of the Year with her much deserved award nor did he allow her to speak. We returned to the Roosevelt Room and one by one got a photo with him and his wife. After what amounted to a brief photo op, we were ushered out of the West Wing and back onto the streets of DC.
For my trip to the White House, I wore a rainbow pin to represent my gratitude for the LGBTQ community that has taught me to be proud, bold, and empowered by my identity – even when circumstances make that difficult. I wore a blue jacket with a bold print and carried a black lace fan to celebrate the joy and freedom of gender nonconformity. I wore an anchor necklace in honor of the State of Rhode Island whose motto “Hope” was inspired by Hebrews [6:19] – “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” These words are as relevant now they were when our founding father Roger Williams was inspired by them over 350 years ago.
In previous years, state teachers of the year were given the opportunity to speak to the president for a few minutes each. Had I been given the opportunity, I would have told him that the pride I feel as an American comes from my freedom to be open and honest about who I am and who I love. I would have told him that queer lives matter and anti-LGBTQ policies have a body count. Taking pride in queer identity means rejecting the shame imposed upon us by a harsh society. It means opening yourself up to a lifetime of criticism and misunderstanding, but knowing that it’s worth it to be able to live authentically. Each and every queer person has been confronted with cruelty in ways many cannot imagine – verbal and physical abuse from strangers, friends, & even family; politicians callously attacking on our right to love or merely exist in public spaces; legalized discrimination for daring to be who we are. Brutality is a universal part of the queer experience.
I am one of the fortunate ones. I have been able to share the last ten years of my life with my partner who understands me better than anyone in the world. I have a mother who always allowed me to be myself, highlighting my best qualities, and building up my confidence as a shield to any bigotry I may encounter. I have a sister, brother, father, sister-in-law, and brother-in-law who have accepted, celebrated, and loved me unconditionally for my whole life. I have a chosen family of queer friends and loved ones with whom I have formed deep and supportive relationships that will last a lifetime.
Each day, I get the privilege of working with students who have found a safe haven in the halls of Beacon Charter High School for the Arts – a school where I have been fully embraced, loved, and respected by my entire Beacon Family. I have students whose families are true partners with me on their child’s educational journey. I have colleagues who inspire me and I have a principal who took a chance on someone with a small resume but a big heart. Truth be told: Beacon’s warm and loving environment has done as much for me as it does for our students every day. I have a Department of Education and former Rhode Island Teachers of the Year who believed in me more than I believed in myself. They gifted me a platform to elevate the voices of those LGBTQ youth who must still fight against brutality inside and outside the classroom.
As LGBTQ people, our identities are complex, but our needs are universal – to be loved, to be respected for who we are, and to be fully equal citizens of the United States of America.
When I think back to my time in the White House, I will not remember the person seated at the desk. I will remember the bravery of AB Wright who led our cohort in singing the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. I will remember the gorgeous singing of Kelisa Wing who commanded the attention of everyone in the Oval Office. I will remember the quiet dignity of Valerie Gates who presented the president with handwritten letters from her refugee students, pleading with him to hear their voices. I will remember when the gravity of our situation hit Michelle Bugh Doherty all at once, and she burst into tears, representing what we were all feeling in that moment. In this role, you represent so much more than yourself. Many of our 2017 Teachers of the Year have had to overcome structural barriers of race, gender, socioeconomic status, home language, immigration status, sexual orientation, and much more. Most of us could never have imagined being in this position, representing not only the talented and hardworking teachers of our states, but also the students and families we fight for every single day.
As I stood in the Oval Office, I thought of Liam, Eliese, Dante, Matt, Abby, Patrick, Rhett, Shane, John, Jay, Jake, D’Andre, Emery, Bailey, Tyler, Amber, Jared, Lenna, Cameron, Caitlin, Unique, Savannah, David, CJay and so many more of the queer youth who have shared their struggles and triumphs with me. Each of these brave young people have made an impact on my life and I carry their stories with me wherever I go. Everything I do in this role as Rhode Island Teacher of the Year is for them.
On Monday, The Smithsonian Institution gave us the opportunity to tour the African-American History Museum. Nothing could have better prepared me for our visit to the White House. For nearly 400 years, Black and Brown people in America have lived under oppressive regimes that denied their humanity, stymied their progress, villainized their activism, and punished their success. The African-American community has for centuries modeled resistance to oppression and the value of self-worth. Because of brave people willing to challenge the status quo, our country has made great progress but the road toward true equality is a long one. I have hope that conditions will continue to improve for our marginalized communities and I have the belief that teachers are the people best equipped to do that job.
To my #NTOY17 Family, thank you for sharing your diverse lives and experiences with me. Your kindness and support have emboldened me and my sense of purpose in this role. There is so much I could say about our time together this week, but I know I don’t have to because you all feel it too. I am so proud of us, the work we have done, and the work we have yet to accomplish. We are a wily bunch, but we are in control of our own narrative and we will always do things our own way. We, as teachers, are the ones who will shape the future of this country. Knowing you all, I am confident that future will be a bright one!