Eleanor Roosevelt H.S. Students Meet Matt Martin from HBO

By: Cardozie Jones, Manager of Youth Programming

After a month of “introductory” visits to schools in and around New York City, in many ways, this week’s visit to Eleanor Roosevelt High School felt like my first.

Matt Martin, a Senior Manager at HBO, was ready and excited to share his story with Roosevelt students. I was excited because this was the first school visit of the 2014/2015 school year in which I would be introducing students to one of our role models. Though Matt has been on Live Out Loud’s radar for the past couple of years having attended some of our events including a ‘Behind the Scenes’ at HBO, this was his first visit to a school as a role model.

I met with Matt a few days before the school visit and discussed with him what the program would look like. The theme of the program was celebrating identity and students would have opportunity to explore and reflect on aspects of their identity. Matt and I agreed that the best way to approach this visit was as co-facilitators. Matt would do more than simply share his story; he and I would both be participant and leader throughout the session.

This was my second visit to Roosevelt and even though attendance was lower, there were still over a dozen students present. We began with an activity called Four Corners in which students responded to different prompts by moving to a specific corner in the room. For example, one prompt asked students to choose which character trait they valued the most: honesty, respect, hard work or patience. Students then chose the trait they most valued by moving to the corner of the room assigned to that trait. What was great about this activity was that it filled the room with both action and dialogue.  Matt and I took turns reading the different prompts. Whenever students chose a corner, I asked them to speak with others who made the same choice to understand their reasoning for being there. After speaking with each other in their smaller groups, students shared why they made their choice with the entire room. After the activity, students shared their observations about what had just happened. One student observed the diversity of perspectives that was present in the room. She noticed that every time a new prompt was given, she found herself surrounded by a new combination of people. Another student shared that she found it difficult to choose from only four options—a challenge she responded to by often standing in the middle of the room.

Next, I wrote the word ‘identity’ on a dry-erase board and circled it. I asked students to think of as many words, phrases or images as possible that come to mind when they see the word identity. While Matt collected responses, I recorded them on the white board. Matt did a really wonderful job of helping students articulate their ideas by constantly reframing the different ways we interact with identity. At one point when students seemed to run out of ideas, he asked, “What are the things that influence our identity?” Every time we reframed the concept like this, the students offered more. They spoke of the internal versus the external, mental health, self-worth and fluidity. They brought up pain, family, and the life experiences that can shape our identities. “Looking at this list, what statements can we make about identity,” I asked the group. “There are more than four options,” one student said jokingly. Then, Tony, the GSA advisor proposed that the concept of identity was extremely broad. I also asked students to look at the list and share what words or ideas resonated with them the most. One student pointed to the word “health” and said that what resonated with her was that she didn’t understand what the word had to do with identity. Instead of answering the question myself, I asked for a volunteer from the group to share their thoughts on why the word was there. One student raised their hand and shared that health and especially our mental health, was more than just a state of being; it was something we carry with us, which makes it an aspect of our identity.

It was now time for Matt to share his story with the group. After having taken a lot of time unpicking the concept of identity with the students, he felt empowered by the list and decided to use to guide his sharing. He pointed at the word ‘conformity’. He spoke of growing up in Southern California knowing he was “different” and subsequently learning how to conform to what it meant to be a heterosexual man. He did all the things a man was supposed to do: sports, dating and even monitoring the way he spoke. At a particularly emotional point in his sharing, he told students that he felt weird being referred to as a role model. He said that it was they who were the role models because they were making the choice to be part of the GSA. He reflected on what things could have been made possible for him had he had access to a similar group as a young person.

For the final activity, students created a Life Map, an exercise that allowed them the chance to unpick aspects of their own identity. I placed the students in random pairs and told each of them to use the life map handout as a tool to interview their partner. The life map prompted students to think about their accomplishments, hopes, feelings, and networks of support.

After about 10 minutes of conversation and sharing, I asked students to share their thoughts about the activity. Because of the randomized pairs, it turned out that most students weren’t paired with someone they knew well. Because of this, what seemed to resonate most with them was the fact that they shared more authentically with a “stranger” than they felt they would have were they paired with a friend. For me this was an incredible opportunity for “a teachable moment.” A teachable moment is something comes up in a lesson that, despite not being part of the original lesson objectives, is too important not to explore more deeply. I asked them to think about what part they play in their personal relationships that would create interactions in which they couldn’t speak honestly about themselves. Tony also pointed out that our relationships are in a constant state of flux, and that just because you’ve been best friends with a person since the first grade, it doesn’t mean that relationship will not change. What can happen, he added, is that we sometimes conform to the idea of the person we used to be while hiding the person we currently are.

At this point, we were five minutes over and the students were still enthralled in the dialogue that was being shared. This is why, in many, this felt like my first school visit. Connecting role models to young people, and having them share their stories through engaging activities is what makes Live Out Loud unique. This program was the embodiment of that mission and I am excited to bring more LGBTQ role models to students throughout the NYC area.

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