There are awkward topics parents want to avoid or delay as long as possible with their children. As a teacher, this is exactly the same. Only the awkwardness is multiplied by the number of pupils in the classroom. Especially when they’re in their teens, and all 15-16 year old.
Last week I had promised them, upon their request, to make them sing “We will rock you”, from Queen. They haven’t forgotten, and as I enter the classroom I’m welcomed with claps in the hands and bangs on the table: clap-clap-bang, clap-clap-bang…They had certainly gotten the first line of the song right: “Buddy you’re a boy make a big noise..”.
They wanted Queen, so I first go through Freddie Mercury’s biography with them. I don’t think I could have picked more controversial a figure from their perspective. Before I know it, my music class is transformed into a space of discussion on geography, British colonial history, homosexuality, and finally on AIDS.
As we’re reading Freddie Mercury’s biography, all these subjects came into life. First, where was Zanzibar? With the help of their smartphones, they all located it. What? Mercury was born there under the reign of a Sultan? I had a couple of candidates for this place in the classroom. As the singer’s family moved to London, it was time to explain a bit of British colonial history. But the most interesting part of the discussion was when they found out in the text that Mercury was homosexual. Half of my class grew up in Gaza and Syria, the other one in Russia or ex-USSR countries.
Within a couple of seconds, I could hear a wave of laughter, “not normal”, “sick”, “forbidden”. I pondered. I’m not supposed to teach ethics just now. Still, I can’t just say nothing. The Russian/ex-USSR born children explain how in Russia homosexuality is not well seen, how people are being bullied for being gay. I hear a Syrian boy saying: “It’s so wrong, this is not normal, two men or two women”. I ask him what does it change for him, in his life, if two people love each other. Nothing, he replies, but it’s a mistake. I ask him how so, and that sends him into thinking again.
A Palestinian girl tells me that she doesn’t think it as abnormal, so long as gays don’t openly kiss in the street. Again, I ask her how comes she deems it as abnormal, and what does it change in her life if they so do? Both kids can’t answer. Finally, the girl tells me “Because between a man and a woman, there is love, but between a man and another man…”. I ask her whether love knows any limit or any border to her then? Again, she is caught unaware and can’t answer that apart from “of course no! but…”. In the meantime, the boy wants to make his point with a “”””scientific explanation””””: “Gay people are not normal because it’s in their DNA”. I tell him that such theories were very much en vogue a few decades earlier in Germany but think that we have enough to deal with for now with the present topic. I tell him that this is just his own opinion and that there is no scientific proof of men or women being genetically different according to their sexual preferences.
Another argument comes in, from a Polish student: “In some countries, you don’t have gay people. Here in Germany, there is a lot of them”. “How do you know that?” I ask. “Because you see them everywhere!”. “You see them, because they’re more visible than elsewhere, that doesn’t mean they aren’t gays elsewhere!”. I can see the talk arises a thousand questions in their minds. I try to mind my answers and remain neutral despite some of the things I hear. Soon, we jump to AIDS. Some of the children still think you can catch it by drinking from the glass of someone infected. We’re in for a biology class where I try and explain in a language which isn’t mine how one can get infected, what does AIDS to someone’s body and what are the current treatments. While I’m at it, and since they’re 15, I might as well chip in “In conclusion, don’t forget to use condoms!” which makes them laugh.
The discussion went on much longer than planned, we barely have time to sing anymore. I ask the children to summarize Mercury’s life in one or two sentences. “He was gay, and he died of AIDS” is what I hear first. I ask them if they really think that this is what is relevant in that text. “Oh, he was also a musician”, ventures one boy. “That he was”, I reply, and I play a record of Bohemian Rhapsody to them. For a couple of minutes, they all fall unusually silent. The Palestinian girl then tells me: “Wow…he really has an amazing voice”. As the last notes from the song play, I’m not sure how much music I brought into their lives today, but I feel they learned a little bit more about tolerance.