I grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona, which is not known for being the most culturally rich and forward-thinking city. I’m not going to go off on my hometown, there were great things about growing up there, but let’s just say that I was counter-cultural peg trying to fit into a conservative hole. Meaning, I wore lots of black eyeliner, carried The Portable Dorothy Parker in my backpack at all times and accepted my lot in high school life as one of the disenfranchised. I was a Goth drama geek. I shopped at the Salvation Army so I could look like Bjork. I cut chorus to start an underground poetry reading club. I should have been rewarded for being subversive! Instead, I was denied entry into the National Honors Society on the grounds that I was “a troublemaker.” The faculty didn’t seem to appreciate what I had to offer the world. But there was one teacher who did: Mr. V was the only teacher who got my vibe. I had him two years for Latin, one for honors English.
Mr V, or Vubs (as I called him), was the only teacher I liked. He would put his long chalkboard pointer behind his head, put one leg up on his desk, puff out his chest like a blowfish and let out a little “pfftt” sound as he licked his handlebar mustache. Inevitably, he would launch into one of his many stories about the hurricane he survived in Saint Thomas many years earlier. The details of these stories are fuzzy because high school was a long time ago. You’d think after three years of listening, I’d remember all the details, but sadly, I don’t. I don’t really remember any Latin either. Bummer. What I do remember is having the distinct impression, that even though Vubs was talking about a life-threatening natural disaster, that this was the best time of his life. His eyes would glaze over dreamily as his tongue reached for the tip of his mustache and he swayed with his chalkboard pointer saying something like, “We only had one can of condensed milk during the storm.”
Who was “we?” The question consumed me and my classmates. My primary goal sophomore year was to trick Vubs into telling us about his love life. Being the smart-ass I was, I led the crusade, goading him for details, asking open-ended questions about the hurricane, often to get out of conjugating Latin verbs, but more out of curiosity. I made sport of it. But every time I thought he was about to get personal, Vubs would motion with his chalkboard pointer toward the poster that always hung on his bulletin board. It was a giraffe with a thought bubble that said, “Don’t try to understand me, just love me.”
Near the end of my junior year, we had a sub one day. As I was the “troublemaker” and never one to turn down a dare, my classmates challenged me to go through Vubs desk and search for clues about his love life. I hustled the sub, making up some cockamamie story about why I needed to open Vubs’ desk drawer and bingo! I found a book of love poems. I wish I could remember the title. I can’t. With my classmates huddled around me, I cracked it open like pirate’s booty. On the inside cover was an inscription:
We’ll always have Saint Thomas.
I love you,
I slammed the book closed, my cheeks reddening, feeling ashamed for having inadvertently outed Vubs. He was gay, in a place where being different was hard. I got what that meant. I put the book back in his desk and told my classmates that we should forget we ever saw it; it wasn’t meant for us. When Vubs came back the next day, I decided I would become his ally instead of his antagonist. I never asked Vubs another question about the hurricane. When he told Saint Thomas stories, I smiled and nodded encouragingly.
When I applied to NYU my senior year, I asked Vubs to write my letter of recommendation. When I got in, he was the only teacher offered me sincere congratulations. “That’s where you belong,” he said. I’ll never stop loving him for getting what I had to offer the world. But more importantly, I thank him for teaching me that when it comes to the people you love, acceptance is more powerful than understanding.