Last month, a CNN article titled “4 in 5 queer people have been emotionally attached to an english [sic] teacher, study finds” went wildly viral on Twitter.
The article was fake. Sorry. No such study has been undertaken. But see, this didn’t really matter. It felt true and thousands agreed with it, chiming in with their own cherished memories of English teachers as a queer kid at school.
This idea that the queer pupil shares a unique bond with their English teacher isn’t new. The theory has been floating around social media for a fair few years. “English teachers are the first gay allies you meet in ur life,” tweeted one user. Another, in a slight variation, said, “Yeah, yeah, gay kids and their female english teacher, what about lesbians and their male science teachers, huh?????” Fair game.
Last year, someone even set up an online archive to document the phenomenon, which, at the time of writing, has brought together as many as six different recollections. Not quite an official scientific study, but it’s a start, eh?
The English teacher, as imagined in these memes, is an oasis of inclusivity in an otherwise homophobic school environment – the Miss Honey to the Miss Trunchbull, if you will. As for what it says about gay people? Well, it plays into some old stereotypes about us being bookish, sensitive and deeply interested in culture. The meme can veer uncomfortably close to “gifted child” territory, an “if your English teacher described you as ‘a pleasure to teach’ then you’re gay now” type of thing.
Queer people imagined as conscientious nerds in secondary school should be rejected. Some of us had behavioural problems, undiagnosed ADHD and spent our lunchtimes inhaling Lynx through a jumper – we deserve representation, too. But, as much as I enjoy distancing myself from gay stereotypes, this one has skewered me with ruthless precision.
My English teacher wasn’t quite the cuddly Miss Honey-type of the gay imagination, though. In fact, she was the only teacher at my school who scared me and the only one I truly respected on that basis. She could be laughing along with a joke one moment, then a second later, fix you with a glare, announcing that she was “bored now.” Ouch.
As someone terminally inclined towards taking things too far, I needed someone to occasionally slap me down like that. But she was kind and deeply principled. I once read an Irvine Welsh novel in which a character described Edinburgh’s Napier University as a “basket-weaving college”. I repeated this quip in her class, no doubt with a smug grin plastered across my face. This was a really snide and classist viewpoint and I don’t think I even believed it in any meaningful way – I was just trying to sound witty. But she fixed me with a sorrowful look and said, “That’s a disgusting thing to say.” And it was. Afterwards, I felt wretched – and I deserved to feel wretched. It was a moment that set me on a path to being less of a dickhead than I might otherwise have become. What more could you ask for from a teacher?
On another occasion, we were having a class discussion about what we wanted to do after we left school and I said, with a flourish that was only partially ironic, “Me? I’m going to be famous!”. She replied, quite sincerely, “I think you will be.” That hasn’t happened (though I do have a blue tick on Twitter), but at a time when it felt like every authority figure in my life was writing me off as a drug-addled loser, it meant a lot to have someone willing to indulge my teenage megalomania, rather than muttering darkly about how I was destined for a “rude awakening”.
During the times when I was a mess – not eating, turning up to school drunk or still hungover – she seemed to be the only person that saw this as a cause for concern, rather than an opportunity to catch me out.
So the stereotype holds true – for me, anyway. This isn’t the case for everyone and it does perpetuate a fairly passé view of what gay teenagers are like, huddled in the library at lunchtime while the other boys play football.
But as far as these clichés go, it’s one of the better ones. In a culture that elevates adolescent trauma as one of the primary modes of understanding what it is to be gay, it’s nice to remember, for those who can, that being a teenager wasn’t all bad. Thanks to the English teacher, the world wasn’t always an entirely hostile and loveless place.