Personal Epiphany, High School, 1994

My high school chemistry teacher was rumored to be a lesbian. I hoped it was true. In some ways, she fit the profile: she had cropped graying hair, tiny gold hoop earrings, and always wore white boating shoes. But more importantly, she managed to be at once hilarious and mellow. For instance, she had developed her own way of answering in the affirmative, a variation on “yeah,” that sounded like “she-yah”, delivered in a nasal voice. It may not sound that funny, but we loved it. We asked more questions just to hear her say it. I had no interest in chemistry, but I sat in the front row.

One particular afternoon I sat in her classroom, fresh from an encounter with a boy, the first I’d had in months. My teacher was balancing chemical equations on the board, moving back and forth between products and reactants until, miraculously, they balanced. Half-dazed, I watched her and brooded.

I’d been avoiding boys for nearly a year. They were trouble for me, but not in the usual way. From a distance, some of them were appealing enough. But once I got close enough to kiss them, my bodily reaction was panic. The night before, I’d been on a date that ended in nothing more than hand-holding and yet still, once I reached the safety of my bedroom I wanted to curl in a ball and never leave. All day at school, I’d been cagey, trying to make myself as small as possible, to stay out of everyone’s line of vision. I didn’t want to see him, to reject him or make small talk, to pretend that things were normal, that I wasn’t inwardly exploding. I had almost made it to the end of the day and now I sat, watching letters and numbers take shape, wondering what was wrong with me.

My teacher, close to solving the first problem, wanted to know if she had four aluminum atoms, and three oxygen atoms, how many aluminum oxide molecules did she have? Someone behind me raised his hand. “Two?” he asked. “She-yah. On to the next one.”

And then it hit me: Maybe I just didn’t like boys. This thought opened the gate to a flood of memories. When I was four, my best friend had asked me if I knew what “gay” meant, and when she explained it to me, I felt awash in relief, like she had provided an answer to a question I had long held but never formed the words for; I remembered one morning in second grade when our school gathered to watch Freaky Friday and I sat transfixed by Jodi Foster, unsure if I wanted to know her or be her; I considered the intensity of my friendships which had often been marked by an unnamed longing; and I mentally listed the boys I had sought after and then retreated from.

I remembered how at twelve I had actively wondered if I was gay, but for some reason I had buried the question, forgetting it for the last four years. But now, as my teacher talked us through yet another chemical equation, the possibility of my queerness brought a kind of relief. I’d spent the last five years thinking I had some insurmountable hang-up. I thought it might take years of therapy to fix me, or perhaps I’d always be alone. But now, all of a sudden it seemed this whole time I’d just been working on the wrong side of the equation.

I was so relieved, and so terrified.

 


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27 comments

  1. She-yah! “the intensity of my friendships which had often been marked by an unnamed longing” – you articulated that perfectly. And you made me remember similar quandaries in my childhood/early adulthood.

    P.S. Mo: “I REALLY liked this one.”

  2. This post just rocked my night. I’ve been on a nostalgia kick lately, this brought back so many memories for me. I can’t think of any way you could have made this post any more powerful. Nicely done!

  3. Beautiful, beautiful post! I love this line: “But now, all of a sudden it seemed this whole time I’d just been working on the wrong side of the equation.”
    Well done!

  4. Wonderful post! You tell the story beautifully through the chemistry teacher reference. I loved the way you ended, even though you couldn’t work in the she-yah. “I was so relieved, and so terrified.” Amazing write.

  5. At first when I was reading this I was like, OMG how the heck can she remember all these details from highschool?! And then I realized that it was so pivotal how could you forget? Awesome.

  6. Wow – this is a fantastic story, and very well told. You used exactly the right amount of detail without getting bogged down.

    I remember the exact instant I had my own personal epiphany. I thought I’d been spending time with a girl in college because I wanted to get to know the guy across the hall, who was a mutual friend. Until one evening, watching a movie with the two of them, it hit me: I’d been hanging out with *him* because I was interested in *her.* It felt like the world suddenly righted itself: disconcerting, dizzying, and freeing. (That was, oh my god, 19 years ago, and we’re still together.)

      1. It actually came as a total shock to me. It prompted lots of soul-searching, as I had never really contemplated girls before. 🙂 But when it’s right, it’s right, y’know?

  7. You are a great writer. I could almost feel your relief in the way you described it. Like a shedding of fear and anxiety. I’ve had my own versions of those moments. A great idea to write about and weaving it in with the chemistry lesson was very well done. 🙂

  8. Just one more example (for me, anyway) of why it’s SO important that we have a grand variety of role models in our lives…family, educators, politicians, mail carriers, police officers, librarians…kids need to see possibilities for themselves and others everywhere. You never know what or who will help the next epiphany.

    Thanks for this lovely post.

  9. I’m just reading this now due to spwork. It’s funny how familiar some of this felt. I had discomfort with boys too because if they liked me I felt I should give them a chance by dating regardless of my feelings. And your panic and revelation reminds me of why I ended my first marriage. Your writing is so so insightful that it stirs up personal memories even though the details are different. Congratulations!

  10. that is some revelation. i just love that it takes place in ‘chemistry’ class where you figure out your own chemistry and the chemistry you may have with others. fabulous.

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