Monday through Thursday, from 7AM–4PM, I am the clinical director and social worker at a high school in Denver. My school has a strong focus on mental health, which is why I’m here. Every incoming student undergoes a mental health assessment and is assigned to a counselor. In addition to traditional “talk” therapy (although we often use that time to go for walks and play UNO), we offer art therapy, therapeutic groups like anger management and inequality club (our school’s version of a Gay Straight Alliance), and animal assisted therapy. And, a few times a year, we offer wilderness therapy.
Of all the unexpected things we do at my high school, from our belly dancing elective, to the yellow Labrador who assists with tours for incoming students, we get the most sideways glances because of wilderness therapy. From adults on the outside, we get questions about why anyone would voluntarily hang out with eight or nine teenage delinquents in the woods for a few days. From my 114 inner city students, the questions are much more practical. Most of them have never left the city, even to visit the Rocky Mountains, a thirty-minute drive from here. With few exceptions, my kids have never been camping, let alone been on an extended backpacking trip (although, full disclosure, I had never been backpacking before taking this job either). The kids wonder about how often we’ll be able to shower, and where the port-a-potties will be located. They find the answers to these questions difficult to believe, or at least, that’s what I choose to assume they mean by “Aw hellll no!”
On our first trip, in addition to helping the kids manage their fears, and the behaviors that accompany scared teenagers, I was trying to manage my own worries around a brand-new experience—as well as my huge backpack. I’m sort of… ungainly, and the way the backpack changed my center of gravity caused me to trip and fall repeatedly (I was the only member of the trip to return home with any injury, in fact.) As we reached camp one afternoon, I tripped and fell into the arms of my female intern. We laughed as she pushed me back onto my feet, and I apologized, “Sorry for trying to make out with you, Miss Amy!” One of our students was ahead of us on the trail and she whirled around at us. “Wait!! Are you making out?” she demanded. I explained that it was a figure of speech. She decided to try again. “Wait… are you guys lesbians?”
“I am, but Miss Amy isn’t.” I replied. It’s not the answer my student was expecting. In fact, I don’t think she was prepared for me to really answer her at all, so she just stared at us for a minute and continued walking.
I had put some thought into considering this exact scenario before we had left for the trip. As part of the therapy that I practice, I don’t usually volunteer much personal information to my clients (who are of course, my students), unless they ask me a direct question. I’m out to all of my coworkers, and I wouldn’t lie if the kids asked me, but it’s not something I’ve shared with the student body at large. I figured that in spending a constant week together and sharing experiences alongside the kids, they might be bored enough to ask me some personal questions, and I settled on handling the topic when or if it came up.
The subject wasn’t mentioned again until dinner that night when we were talking about quinceañeras and weddings, and another intern asked something about my upcoming wedding. All of the students focused on that immediately—where was the wedding? What was I wearing? Would there be cake? Were they invited? I laughed and answered all of them. Then the student I had come out to earlier chimed in, “Wait, are you marrying your girlfriend?”
“I sure am.” I said. The kids were all quiet for a minute, and then we moved on to other topics until bedtime. It wasn’t mentioned again for the rest of the trip. I figured the kids were processing, or, more likely, had moved on to thinking about more interesting things.
Since the trip, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss being a gay lady with more of my students, including a young woman who came into my office wearing a t-shirt over her leggings. “Miss,” she said, turning her back to me, and bending over slightly “No homo, but can you see the hole in my leggings like this?”
“Well, I’m going to need you to reword the question, since it’s physically impossible for my office to be ‘no homo.’” I said.
“Miss!! How do you want me to say it?” She asked.
“How about, ‘Ms. Kelsey, I would like for you to check the seat of my leggings for a visible tear, but I don’t mean to show you my behind disrespectfully?’”
She thought about it for a minute. “Okay, that’s my question,” she said. “Just like you said it.” “Then you and your leggings are good.” I smiled.
One of the reasons why I love working with teenagers is because they are so authentic. They don’t always have the correct response, but they’re not as afraid to say the wrong thing as they might grow up to be. I like to hear how they process others’ experiences. So far, my student from the original camping trip had the most practical response. During a break from state testing with another staff member, she and a male student were discussing with whom my therapy dog would live if I died. My male student suggested that I might be open to considering letting her live with our assistant principal, who Samantha is madly in love with.
“No way,” said my girl from the camping trip, “Sam’s going to stay with Ms. Kelsey’s wife if she dies.”
“Hold up!” said my male student. He reflected for a moment, and then in the insightful fashion so common to sixteen-year-old boys, he reached a conclusion: “Ms. Kelsey’s too hot to be a lesbian.”
My camping girl didn’t miss a beat. “I bet her wife doesn’t think so.”