stats for wordpress

Are you on Facebook?

Would you please click "like" in the box to your right, or

Visit us on Facebook!

On Our Radar – Susan Johnson – No Gay-Friendly Teacher Left Unpunished

by Jean Ann Esselink on December 2, 2012

in Education,Jean Ann Esselink,News,On Our Radar

Post image for On Our Radar – Susan Johnson – No Gay-Friendly Teacher Left Unpunished

When an eighth grade student reached out to her, teacher Susan Johnson reached back. As a reward, the school suspended her, and in doing so, may as well have branded the student as gay. Today, teacher Susan Johnson and the students lucky enough to have her, are On Our Radar.  

My favorite part of writing fiction is the imagining. I can’t tell you how many hours I have spent lying in the dark with a pillow over my face, trying to conjure up how it would feel to inhabit whatever character I was trying to bring to life. I’m not sure why I need the pillow, I’m convinced it works as a kind of idea antenna. (We can discuss the inspiration pillow some other time, after you have stopped snickering.) My point is, writing On Our Radar this week, I spent a lot of time trying to imagining what it might be like to be a thirteen year old LGBT questing kid. Of course, I can never really know, but I am willing to bet this is a true statement: Rare indeed is the eighth grader struggling with his orientation, who will have enough clarity or self-assurance to simply come out.

I imagine there is a tortured dance.  The Q Dance. Besides the inevitable internal turmoil, an eighth grade kid is going to be wary about what he says and to whom he says it. He’s scared of bullies. Of rejection. Of being laughed at. It is very possible he’s deathly afraid his parents will find out.

I remember from writing about the Safe Space Campaign, and about the need to develop an LGBT Big Brothers Program, how important it is for such a kid to find a sympathetic adult he can talk to. But even if he identifies a teacher who seems like she’d be cool, he’s not going to just make an after-school appointment and pour out his heart. He’s going to test the waters. Maybe he’ll write a line in a homework assignment he hopes she’ll ask about. Maybe he’ll wear his message on a T-shirt. Or maybe he’ll want her to hear a song that spoke to him. A good teacher will be able to spot the signs, and will know how to respond when she sees them.

This week, our Detroit area FOX affiliate reported on a teacher from suburban South Lyon’s Centennial Middle School, who received what might have been just such a message from a student. An eighth grader in her Performing Arts Class asked Susan Johnson to play for the class One Love, a song about gay equality by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Luckily for him, she was listening between the lines.

Ms. Johnson told TV 2 reporters she played One Love after being reassured by the student that the song contained no profanity or references to violence. Was the student who asked her to play the song gay or questioning? I have no idea. I can think of a hundred other reasons he might have wanted the class to hear the song, but I know Susan Johnson, with years of teaching experience to go by, felt it was important to respond in an open-minded and accepting fashion. Whether this was a gay kid reaching out, or a straight kid who wanted to talk about a confusing issue, or just a kid who wanted to share a song that touched him, Susan Johnson did what good teachers do, she reached back. She told reporters (see the news video below) as she listened to the song, she felt it reinforced the message of tolerance and inclusion she always believed was the school’s mission.

By the end of the day, Ms. Johnson had been suspended.

The principal of Centennial Middle School, identified on the school’s website as Derrek Ross, says he suspended Ms. Johnson because it is school policy for teachers to secure his permission before playing a “controversial” song. I wonder if, before he made it, he ever considered the effect such a rule would have on the trust quotient of students? Can you imagine the class reaction if Ms. Johnson had taken One Love and run down to the principal’s office to ask his guidance before she played it?

This is truly a case where the punishment was a thousand times worse than the infraction, and the collateral damage is inexcusable. We should all hope the young student who asked his teacher to play One Love is not an LGBT questioning kid who tried to make an overture to a trusted teacher. We should hope this because if he is, although Ms. Johnson was ready to catch him if he jumped, his school failed him. His principal betrayed him. And I don’t need a pillow over my face to realize he is probably in a lot of emotional distress right now.

For a moment, spare a thought to that poor kid who asked his teacher to play One Love. Pretend for the sake of this discussion, that the student is a gay-questioning teen, whose first outreach to anyone was to Ms. Johnson. Had the principal thought to trust the instincts of his teacher, or to handle the incident with the best interest of the student in mind, that teen might be on his way to working out his feelings right now. Instead, the principal brought his eighth grade world down on him

If that student approached Ms. Johnson because he wasn’t ready to discuss his feelings with his parents, he is now dealing with their reaction. Reporters are trying to ferret out his name and get his statement. In school, he will forever be the kid who got Ms. Johnson suspended. The entire student body and all their parents know his name and “suspect” him of being LGBT. Gay or not, he better get ready to hear “faggot” in the hallways. To be stuffed in his locker, and ostracized in the cafeteria. If he was afraid of bullies before, he’s terrified now.  The principal, by suspending his teacher, might as well have outed him. Then again, I’m not a thirteen year-old gay kid. Perhaps I’m imagining it all wrong?
I have embedded the YouTube version of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ song, One Love, below, so you can judge for yourself if you think Susan Johnson deserved a three-day suspension for playing it. It is a plea for marriage equality, with the haunting voice of Mary Lambert singing the refrain: “I can’t change, even if I tried. Even if I wanted to,” contrasting with the staccato rap of artist Macklemore . Remember when you watch it, the class didn’t see the video, they only heard the song.

Susan Johnson is back in the classroom, where she belongs. She has been offered legal help from the ACLU if she decides she wants to sue the school, or Principal Ross. But come Monday morning, the student, who just wanted his teacher to hear a song, is on his own. I find some comfort that Ms. Johnson will be there to look out for him.

This morning, Susan Johnson, and the students fortunate enough to have her as their teacher, are On Our Radar.

Teen Image via

tncrmJean Ann Esselink is a straight friend to the gay community. Proud and loud Liberal. Closet writer of political fiction. Black sheep agnostic Democrat from a conservative Catholic family. Living in Northern Oakland County Michigan with Puck the Wonder Beagle.

Follow me on Twitter as @Uncucumbered or friend me on Facebook.

Writer’s Notes: I am aware the student who asked to play One Love may be a girl. I used the male gender only for ease of pronouns.

Posted below is the WJBK FOX News(Detroit) report in which teacher Susan Johnson is interviewed, explaining in obvious distress:

“I really love my kids and I never want to hurt them, but I also know that there’s a lot of bullying and there’s a lot of gay bashing and racial issues going on in our country and I want the kids to feel comfortable in my class no matter who they are.”    

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


We invite you to sign up for our new mailing list, and subscribe to The New Civil Rights Movement via email or RSS.

Also, please like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter!


BJLincoln December 2, 2012 at 10:16 am

The middle school age group is one of the hardest times in our lives. Hormones are raging and we become aware of more than just our friends and neighborhoods. Kids today listen to and watch stuff far worse than this song and video. The teacher did the right thing for all the right reasons. If I were still teaching, I would add this to my list of songs for class. Ignoring bullies and the hate does not make school better. Paying attention and teaching inclusion is the way to go. Good for her. I hope she stays at that school. Sounds like they need her.
My heart goes out to the young person who just wanted to share. You did not cause this. You were trying to make it better. Knowledge is power. You keep trying to teach the ignorant just like this song.

Goose09 December 2, 2012 at 7:24 pm

I'm all for equal rights and the end of bullying, but I listened to the song and I understand why the principal had to suspend her. In the song there is a line that denounces Christianity, and however acceptable you think that is (personally, I don't care), it is not acceptable to play that to a classroom of kids who may or may not be a part of that religion. It basically says that their religion is hypocritical, which regardless if it is or not, is not tolerated in schools. I wish the song could have simply promoted gay rights without insulting others, but I understand that it was an important part of the author's life, and totally his choice to include. It is just not appropriate for a classroom setting. Besides, my mother has been a principal for almost 30 years now, and based on what I know from conversing with her, it is always in the teacher's best interest to get anything viewed by a class approved ahead of time. It is simply a safer bet

Diogenes_Arktos December 5, 2012 at 1:13 am

It's been too long since I heard the song; I don't remember such a line. Even if it had no line which criticized Christianity, the topic of the song could be construed as criticizing Christianity. Perhaps Gooseog's mother is a principal who does not have tunnel vision. Too often gay sites post cases where anti-gay and similar sentiments being perfectly acceptable, but the opposite viewpoints get people suspended – often citing some flavor of Christianity as the unimpeachable basis for the unequal treatment. The reality of teaching is that the suggestion at the end of Gooseog's comment is simply impractical for all involved. "It's simply a safer bet"? Sometimes that just means a safer bet for a law suit.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: