IN THE WORLD OF artistic freedom, open-mindedness is a given. But what happens when that “accepting world” is placed within the constraints of academia? When expressing oneself through art, does one hide one’s personal life in the pursuit of professionalism, or does one remain open and allow artistic freedom to flow as it would in the outside world? When does one sacrifice their art for education? The following is a summary of two interviews with musicians from the world of academia.
After receiving his degree from OSU, Jones taught at Teays Valley High School, Twin Cities in Chicago, and Concordia College. He then returned to OSU. When asked how he learned to balance being an openly gay male, a dedicated educator, and a source of inspiration to his students, Jones responded, “I thought to myself, my career is going to fit around my life…not the other way around. My walk is to teach. It’s what I’m designed to do and I am going to do it.” Jones grew up in a time after the onset of the AIDS epidemic when “the only time you heard ‘gay’ was on a 60 Minutes special.” While Jones said, “I didn’t see myself in the gay culture…what I saw in pride parades, I couldn’t relate to that,” his community thought “He’s not gay… he’s just single.”
“Fear is one of the most terrible things in the world…The reality is, much of our fear comes from not understanding. Once you get to the point where you recognize there is some of me in you and some of you in me, it all gets better. Fear is one of the worst motivators in life.” Jones now realizes his fears were “products of (his) own worry more than anything.”
Jones did not fully emerge from hiding until his collegiate position at Concordia. During his interview process he said to a committee member as they walked across campus, “Hey, I’m gay and if this is going to be a problem, thanks but no thanks.” The committee member replied, “No, there is no problem.” Jones shared that this is the point when he crossed the threshold and realized that academia was the best of all possible worlds. This process was repeated during his hiring process at OSU.
“That’s part of what I bring to the university, someone who is trying to thrive, had a 15 year public school career, seems happy, views the glass as half full, and is also gay. It is all compatible; it is all possible. That’s part of what being a teacher or professor is. It’s about learning life through music.”
Dr. Melanie Richards has taught at Columbus City Schools for the past 13 years. She holds a DMA (musical equivalent of a PhD) in clarinet performance from OSU. Speaking on her personal life, Richards said, “During my young adult years I was defined as a lesbian. And then when I was 25, I married a man and was married to him for 20 years. We are divorced now. And when I separated, I decided that I needed to reclaim my lesbianism.” In discussing her marriage, Richards stated, “I fell in love with the idea of being in love with him. In the late 1980s it wasn’t really an option for two women to have a family together. I have two kids. My youngest child is by birth and is eight years old. My oldest child is adopted. He is 16 now… 16 years ago do you think they would have given him to me as a single adult, or a woman in a same-sex relationship?”
“With middle school kids, they are very curious about your personal life. When I first separated from my husband, my students noticed I wasn’t wearing my wedding ring any more. The students asked and I simply said I was separated. This past year my partner asked me to spend the rest of my life with her. I said ‘yes’, with the hope that one day it would become a real marriage. I started wearing a ring and my students started asking me about it. I talked to lots of other LGBT colleagues and got a variety of opinions. The one who got through to me was a teacher who is really out who said, ‘If you were straight and got engaged would you hesitate to tell them?’ This stuck with me and I thought, ‘I am protected by Columbus Public Schools,’ so the next time they asked I simply said, ‘I am engaged to a woman.’ The students responded with ‘What’s the big deal? Why did you try to hide it? Can we go to the wedding?’ It was very liberating!”
When asked what advice would she like to pass on to upcoming teachers, Richards responded, “With any situation you enter, you need to know your crowd…For example, if I lived in northwest Ohio and taught in a school district with 2,000 kids, my life would be completely different. Be aware of where you are going to be working and speak to that environment.”
Within the world of academia there is much structure and rigor which are not always conducive to a creative person. You have heard from two individuals whom have found a balance in their personal and professional lives. Their accomplishments have and will continue to lead the way for others.