“Creating I Know I’m Not Me brought new surprises and discoveries every step of the way. I imagined that this book would be life-changing for certain students-the strongest writers, and those who had faced the most discrimination and homophobia. Yes, the experience was powerful for them, but the students who really came to life during the publishing process were some I wouldn’t have predicted: a straight student who was brought to tears realizing some of the common challenges she and her classmates faced, an English language learner who used up all the space on my tape recorder exploring his past, and many students who weren’t even in my class but who put in the extra time and effort to share their stories." -Nicole Dixon, M.A. Student in the Teaching of English Program, Teachers College, Columbia University
When Nicole Dixon began student teaching at Harvey Milk High School, a public transfer school originally conceived as a safe space for LGBTQ students, she had no doubt that her semester would be unique. At Harvey Milk, she found, identity and self-discovery were explicitly at the heart of her English classroom curriculum.
“You realize quickly that students just don’t have the mental space to think about metaphors and similes until they start to feel comfortable in their own skins,” Dixon said.
What Dixon did not expect from her semester was the reaction she received from others in her program at Teachers College, Columbia University (TC) when they heard about her experience.
“One of my friends said, ‘Wow, what a challenge working with these kids who are dealing with issues of sexuality and prejudice on top of everything else — I wouldn’t know what to do with that!’” Dixon remembered.
Another time, classmates in an adolescent literature class wondered whether it was worth wading into the “controversy” surrounding novels with LGBTQ themes if they had no lesbian or gay students in their classes.
Dixon said, “Teaching at Harvey Milk made it so clear to me… that these same kids who were really vocal, pouring their hearts out about what it had been like being the only gay one in their whole school, six months ago had been sitting silently in their old classes, with this incredible turmoil completely invisible to their old teachers.”
In partnership with SPI, as well as the storytelling organization and professors in the Teaching of English program, Dixon set out to give her students the opportunity to change that narrative for other New York City students and teachers. The following semester, she designed and taught a class called “Outspoken.” Students read LGBTQ Young Adult literature, helped design high school curricula around it, and developed spoken word pieces about their own lives, struggles and triumphs to present at Teachers College.
It was during the planning stages that SPI Founding Director Erick Gordon saw a chance to put students’ words into print. Gordon, who student taught at Harvey Milk in 1995 and helped students produce a short, staple-bound book, was excited to reconnect to a cause close to his heart.
“There are so many important voices from this community that go completely unheard,” Gordon said. “This book brings amazing stories to readers who need to hear them.”
I Know I’m Not Me hit bookstores in July. Book participants celebrated with a reading to a standing-room-only audience at Bluestockings, an independent bookstore in New York City.
For Dixon’s students, the night was profound. One put it this way: “For students who are screaming to be heard because they’ve been shut down their whole lives, this gave us something we will remember for a very long time.”