Where did Nicole and I get the title of this interview? I’ll give you a hint. Nicole’s a high school English teacher! Still not sure? You’ll get the answer at the end of the interview…
When I was a kid, my Mom would always go through our religion workbooks at the beginning of the year. My sisters and I went to a Roman Catholic school. She probably went through our other books too, but I don’t remember that. What I do remember is that one year, her perusal of our books ended with us, my Mom, my older sister, and myself, in the living room together while she explained something I had never heard before. She said that we were going to start to hear that being gay was a sin in school, but that wasn’t something that we as a family believed. We, my mother firmly stated, know people are born that way and there’s nothing wrong with that.
My mother. The original Lady Gaga.
This conversation fascinated me for a number of reasons. People being gay wasn’t one of them. Mostly, I was fascinated that we could learn something in school that might be false. My little mind was blown.
Fast forward to a group email my high school friends and I were sending around while we were all in college at different schools. (This was before Facebook… You know, in the Stone Age.) My one friend, a smart, savvy lady, was playing what I fondly call “the pronoun game” in our email. She was telling us about the person she was dating and using “they.” My dear, I know you know your pronouns. I talked to my good friend Jackie on AIM and said, “She’s pronoun gaming us! What should we do?” And we decided that I would reply back to her alone and say we know what you’re doing and we love you whomever you’re dating. We always want your happiness and aren’t even remotely concerned or fazed or whatever you think we might be. And wasn’t she relieved that she didn’t have to play games with her oldest friends?!?!
And just a few years after that, I had the privilege of officiating the marriage of that friend to her love Nicole Mustaccio.
Nicole Mustaccio is an English teacher in the New Jersey public school system, and she is out about her sexual orientation. She is married to a wonderful woman and mother to two delightful sons. One is named after one of her favorite literary greats, Dante Alighieri, the Italian poet known for the epic Divine Comedy, and her second son, Austin, is an amazing young man who is attending Nicole’s alma mater West Chester University. Nicole loves Hamlet, coaches softball, and gets writers’ cramp every Fall as she writes out hundreds of college recommendations. She is (unfortunately, according to me) a huge Cowboys fan! I talked to Nicole about her experience as a teacher in the United States public school system.
Good day, Nicole! Thank you for chatting with me today!
The pleasure is all mine!
When did you first know you wanted to be a teacher?
Most teachers say that they always wanted to be a teacher since they were a little kid. They would “play school” with their friends and would always be the teacher, assigning homework and such. I was not one of those people, actually. I always loved literature and it really wasn’t until my Junior year of high school when I entered Mrs. Magro-Croul’s British Literature class that I thought about being a teacher. She had a way of teaching that engaged her students, made them passionate about the works of literature, and most importantly, taught her students how to be good people. All of those were things I wanted to do as well. I’ve always had a passion for helping people and figured I could do that and teach literature at the same time! After graduating high school, I actually was a Physical Therapy major for about a semester, until I realized that teaching was my calling and my passion. I changed my major, to English Literature and went on to get my Masters in English Literature and my Masters in Secondary Education, specializing in Curriculum and Instruction.
What are the best and worst parts of being a teacher?
The best part of teaching is helping the students make connections to works of literature through the characters and their actions. I also have an amazing opportunity to teach my students about the importance of being themselves, compassion, sympathy, empathy, acceptance, and to “do good in this world.” One of my former students truly summed up what I think the best part of being a teacher is when she wrote to me, “”The lesson I learned in Ms.Mustaccio’s class was one I don’t know if she meant to teach. But with two years with her I started to pick up on little things she taught us that I would use in my everyday life. She unconsciously taught me how to believe in myself more. That I am more than what I feel I’m worth. I am more than my past and more than what people tell me I am. I am worth it. I should be more confident in myself. My writing is better than I think and so is my art. She taught me to be myself and love who I am. I cannot change who I am. I’m weird, I’m silly, I’m loud, I’m protective, and I can be rash. But I learned to love that. I learned I was not meant to be invisible. I was meant to be me. I really don’t know how Ms. Mustaccio did it, but she helped me become comfortable with who I am. And once I learned that, things started to fall into place for me. I’m still awkward and silly, but I love that about myself. And she taught me others will love that about me as well. I thank her for teaching me this.”
This right here is the best part of teaching!
The worst part about being a teacher has to be the lack of respect from not only my friends and family, but also the community and society. People think that teaching is easy, teachers get paid way too much, and they don’t work “full-time.” Honestly, not sure what is so easy about teaching Hamlet to 17 and 18 year olds, but anyway. And for the record, I work 3 jobs during the school year and then tutor in the summer and many of my colleagues do the same.
Oh, and my enormous class sizes aren’t fun when I have essays to grade in a short amount of time.
What is the biggest misconception your students’ parents have about you and their children’s teachers?
I’m not quite sure how to answer that one as I’ve been lucky to have very supportive parents whether it’s in the classroom or on the softball field. I can say that I think that, in general, I think that many parents think that teachers don’t work hard enough, or grade fairly. Those are just guesses though.
Did you come out as a gay woman after you were already teaching at your current school or were you already out?
When I first started teaching at my current school in 2008, I did not come out at all. I was coming from teaching at a Catholic High School, where I definitely could not come out as well. I chose to wait until I was tenured to come out about my sexual orientation. My biggest concern was not being tenured if I came out. When you’re a non-tenured teacher, your contract cannot be renewed and the school board and administration does not have to tell you why, so I chose to wait until I was tenured. Only about 2 or 3 of my colleagues knew before I came out.
And, how awkward a question is that for me to even ask? Certainly, I don’t announce my straightness in my job interviews.
I agree, it’s a shame because being tenured should be based on my teaching abilities not my sexual orientation. I’m hoping one day, this question won’t even need to be asked.
How do your students respond to your sexual orientation? Does it even come up?
Honestly, it does not come up much now, thankfully. The students in the school know because I will talk about my wife as casually as straight teachers talk about their spouses. In fact, on the first day of school, I will bring up my wife and sons and tell my students if they ever have any questions, to just ask. I’m open about it because I want them to realize that I’m no different than anyone else. And I believe asking questions takes away stereotypes and opens the door to true understanding. Every once in a while, I’ll get a student who will react but it’s almost always in a positive way. I do remember one time I had to “come out” in class. We were discussing, Dante’s “Inferno”, of course, and I was talking about how Dante was banned from the Catholic Church for a long time because he put popes and priests in Hell. One of my students said that all priests should be in hell because they were gay and mentioned the news about many priest and their child abuse scandal. This kid was associating the gay community with child abusers. At that point, I had to out myself so that he could understand that there is clearly no connection at all between being gay and child abuse! The class reaction was positive and we ended up have a meaningful discussion about stereotypes, stigmas, and other things. It was definitely a teachable moment. After class, the student approached me and apologized and told me I was the only gay person he knew. His family was not as accepting and he was just spewing what his family said. However, after talking to me he realized that what he said was hurtful and he will look at the gay community differently and accept them with love and compassion.
Another powerful teachable moment I had was in 2015. My school had an assembly with the family of Tyler Clementi. (Cristin’s note: Learn more about Tyler’s story here.) The assembly focused on bullying, especially bullying of the LGBTQ students. It was a very powerful assembly and I knew I wanted to discuss this with my class. With every class I had, I talked to them about how horrible my high school experience was with bullying. I was constantly pushed into lockers and called horrible names, all by one person. I felt it was important to tell my students this so that they realize the impact of their actions. I then let my students ask me anything (within reason) about me, my family, and anything else. Their questions were thoughtful, and we ended up having such a tremendous discussion and I truly believe that it affected my students in a powerful and positive way. One of my students told me that that class discussion had more of an impact on her than the assembly because I am someone who she respects and admires and hearing about what I went through made her want to step up and stop bullying.
How about your colleagues, fellow teachers and administrators?
I’ve been very lucky that once I came out I have been welcomed by my work family. My colleagues love my wife and sons. We are treated no differently than a straight couple. It’s very nice to be able to not worry about being targeted for being gay. It allows me to focus on my students and my lessons.
Do you and your family attend school events together?
Yes, my family and I attend as many school events as possible. My students get excited to see Dante because there’s always a different picture of him on my computer constantly. They always greet my wife with open arms and end up talking to her more than me. When I’m coaching, my wife will bring Dante to the games and my softball girls will invite him into the dugout, give him high-fives and play with him after the game. The parents are amazing as well. They have welcomed my wife as part of their group and love to sit and talk with her and play with Dante while the game is going on. I’m extremely lucky to have such loving and accepting players, students, and parents. The families even threw my wife and I a baby shower! It makes doing my job about a million times easier.
I’m not too familiar with the laws over in NJ land. Were you able to take leave when your wife had your son?
I could have taken a family leave for about 6 weeks but would have lost some of my pay and with my wife on maternity leave, we couldn’t afford it. However, since Dante was born in May and that is right in the middle of my softball season, I could only take 5 days off. Definitely not enough time but I signed a contract to coach so there was nothing I could do.
I work while my husband stays at home with our son, and I get a ridiculous amount of stupid assumptions followed by even stupider questions. I have to imagine the same happens to you with Dante having two moms. Am I wrong there? Are people even more socially aware than I think they are?
There are tons of assumptions people make about us. While most people don’t even react when I say “my wife and I,” I do get a lot of negative comments since Dante is not biologically mine. Some of the most ignorant are the ones that say that “So, Dante is not truly your son then?” Or “Ok, it makes sense since he isn’t biologically yours, because he doesn’t look like you at all!” Look, both of my amazing and awesome sons are not biologically mine but that doesn’t matter. Being biologically related to your child doesn’t automatically mean you’re a mom. I’m a mom because I love my sons with every ounce of my being, I’m protective of them, although Austin would say I’m a bit “too protective” at times, and would do anything and everything for them. I always say, “You don’t have to be blood to be family.” When I hear comments like that, I realize that there is still a lot of work to do to stray away from the stereotypical Mom and Dad family. We always tell Dante that he has two mommies and some kids have only one mom or one dad, or two dads, and none of that matters. The only thing that matters is that we love you very much.
What’s great or maybe sad, not sure, is that these negative comments always come from adults not kids. Kids don’t care as much. We were at one of my softball games and Dante and my wife were playing on the swings and a kid came up to her and Dante and here’s the conversation:
Kid: Dante is here with his mom right?
My Wife: Yes.
Kid: Then, who are you?
My wife: I’m Dante’s mommy too. Dante has two mommies.
Kid: Oh, that’s cool. I only have a mom and I help her out around the house a lot. Can Dante come play on the slide with me?
Sometimes I wish adults thought more like kids, there would be a lot less hatred in the world.
What would be your advice for someone who wants to come out at work?
Do it when you’re ready. There’s no timeline for when you have to come out IF you choose to come out at all. The choice is completely yours and yours alone.
I know that my experience is different than someone else’s but you’ll be glad when you do come out. You’ll be more confident in yourself and your ability at your job and there will be a sense of relief that you don’t have to hide things anymore. Of course be careful too, not every school district or work place is as accepting as mine so make sure you don’t put yourself in danger or jeopardy. If that’s the case, maybe start looking for new job.
Overall, do you think we as a society are heading in the right direction when it comes to equal rights?
I want to believe we are but then again we are still dealing with the ignorant and hateful law in North Carolina and many other states. And just recently, the Pulse nightclub shooting where the LGBTQ community was targeted for just being who they are. There is a lot more fighting to do. That is one reason why I am so openly out at school. I want to change people’s perceptions, to go against the stereotypes and most importantly show my LGBTQ students that it’s ok to be who you are and as cliché as it sounds, “It can and does get better.” Your true friends and family will love and accept you. And if they don’t, then you’ve got a teacher right here who will.
I can’t not ask you this. I am a bookworm for heaven’s sake! What’s the one book/work/play we should all revisit from our high school days?
HAMLET!!!! There’s so much in it about exploring identity within yourself, within others, morality, mortality, justice, revenge. I could go on for about 15 minutes about it.
Also, 1984, that book is so especially relevant within our society today.
Thank you so much, Nicole. I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with me.
“I celebrate myself” is a quote from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself.