Setting: Ms. Matlock’s Seventh Grade English Class. My school is a private Christian middle school. It is 1997. I am 12 years old.
Ms. Matlock: This week we are going to learn how to write a well-structured letter.
Me: Cool (I thought to myself)
Ms. Matlock: Each of you is going to write a letter to Michael Eisner. He is the CEO of Disney.
Me (to myself): Why am I writing a letter to someone I don’t know? What is a CEO? Disney is cool though. I know all the songs from Lion King. Jonathan Taylor Thomas was awesome as Simba. Why am I so obsessed with him?
Ms Matlock: We are writing letters to Mr. Eisner because Disney is a family values company. But something bad is happening. One of the television shows under Disney’s control is the Ellen show.
I don’t care about any of this. I don’t watch that channel. And who the hell is Ellen DeGeneres? Damnit. This class started out cool, but now I’m bored again…. Thanks a lot Ms. Matlock.
Ms. Matlock: Ellen DeGeneres is a lesbian and she has recently made the decision to let everyone know this about her. And now this lifestyle choice will be depicted on her show, for millions of Americans to see.
Damn, that’s bad. I’ve never known a gay person, but from everything I’ve heard at this school it sounds like being gay is terrible, it’s a sin, and those people are all weird and messed up.
Ms. Matlock: So each of you will be writing a proper letter to disagree with Disney’s decision to have homosexuality on the Ellen show, and your letters will urge Disney to stop spreading this sinful material across the country through our televisions.
So how did this story end?
We all followed suit, like good obedient 12-year old Christian students. I don’t recall any controversy over the assignment, and no opposition from students or parents. This story has stuck with me throughout my life because it represents much of my childhood – a small town upbringing where the best schools were the private, White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP), where diversity was not encouraged, and where we were molded to conform.
While I was researching for this story to pinpoint the exact year Ellen came out on here show, I stumbled across this Wikipedia entry.
“It was believed that The Walk Disney Company, ABC’s parent owner, had become uncomfortable with the subject matter depicted on the show now that DeGeneres’ character was openly gay. In May 1998. Ellen was canceled/ DeGeners returned to stand-up comedy and later re-established herself as a successful talk show host.”
So I guess I owe Ellen an apology. I hope she would forgive me and countless other young people who are used by conservative “family values” advocates.
Where are they now?
Ms. Matlock ended up teaching at the big bad public high school across the street. She continued her crusade of religious dogma at the high school level, tried to not teach certain books and topics and alienated many of her teaching colleagues. She also ran up against students that were not docile 12-year olds. They talked back. They swore. And more importantly, they called her out on her bullshit.
Dan (that’s me) ended up as valedictorian of his middle school class — mainly because he put his head down, did what he was told, and memorized things — because let’s be honest, that’s all that we were really asked to do at that school. He also went on to the scary secular public high school across the street where he realized it wasn’t full of evil atheists that would persecute and bully the Christian kids. He then went to a very secular public university where he was taught to think, question, and reason.
I also went on to teach English at a middle school, and I tried my best, every single day, to teach my 12-year old students to celebrate diversity and question authority.—David Werner