Issue #14: An Interview With a Theater Teacher - Part I

How a gay man focused on creating in order to gain acceptance

Ron Meyer, M.A.

What a good-looking headshot!

I had the pleasure of working with Ron Meyer at not one, but two different buildings. Our paths never crossed academically - he was in the theater department and I taught special ed. What I knew about Ron, at first, was that he had a reputation for being very serious about his productions. Serious enough to have won four teaching awards.

Fate didn’t unite Ron and me until we began working in our second high school together in 2008. We formed a friendship — one of those true blue, comrade-in-arms type friendships — when we had to endure working cafeteria duty together. It’s one of those grunt-work jobs that administrators assign to new hires, banking on them being too eager and compliant to say no.

We found ways to pass the time by quoting Hamlet 2, which we deemed required viewing for theater teachers who have pulled cafeteria duty. The main character was a theater teacher who set out to save the arts by directing an original work, a sequel to Hamlet. He also worked out of his school’s “snackatorium.” We couldn’t resist the parallels.

After we were done working together, I discovered that Ron’s productions were so popular, so sought after, that students from every social circle tried out. I know this because I married a man (an athlete) who once made the cast of Ron’s production of Annie. My husband said it was the thing to do in his school, all of his friends tried out. The productions weren’t just for theater and music kids (I’m sure those kids loved that).

That’s the magic of Ron Meyer. He’s a connector. He pulls groups of people together through the quality of his work.

Ron’s career began in 1990 at age 26, in Kansas City’s urban school district at The Kansas City Middle School of the Arts. He was recruited to direct Annie. He did such a good job that they extended a teaching job offer, even though he didn’t have an education degree. It was a competitive school with a tight-knit faculty and student body. The kids had to audition to earn a spot in the building. Ron would later have four students go on to Broadway.

Did you have any worries about going into this profession in the beginning, being a gay man?  

Not there, not at a fine arts school. There are so many gays and lesbians in the arts. Now, we didn't have many gay people on staff there at the middle school that I knew of. But people weren't out like people are out today. And I, I was pseudo-out.

What was this performing arts building like?

The kids had to audition. We had three dance teachers and I was one of six theater teachers. The staff was very progressive. My principal was the best one I ever had, Roger Williams. He was such a gentleman and he made me feel appreciated. Also, he allowed a lot of freedom. He would come up during class and go, Oh, Mr. Meyer, we are so happy to have you here at The Kansas City Middle School of the Arts, the crown jewel of the Kansas City School District.

Did you run into any issues, being gay in this building?

No, but I think it was because we had such a great leader. He created a creative, welcoming climate. So, the staff was accepting. They knew I was single and they would offer to set me up with their gay friends. I even had parents trying to set me up. So, I hadn’t officially come out as gay, but people knew.

I will say, I befriended another faculty member who was a lesbian. So she would warn me to be careful because of the morality clause, which could result in me losing my job if they found out I was gay. I don’t remember specifically what it said, but it was there.

Ron and Jeff at their wedding in 1995

Why do you think you were so well-received by parents? This was the ‘90s and the AIDS crisis was going on — nationally, it's not a friendly time for gays. Somehow you found a community that accepted you and even wanted to set you up on dates. Why was that? 

I think because they knew that I did really good work and I was good for their kids. They really appreciated what I did. And they understood that we had created a strong program, it was top-notch.

Plus, I think they knew that I wasn't a threat in any way to their son or daughter. They were also very forward-thinking. So, everybody was pretty cool. Jeff and I got married in 1995. About half of the people there were from my school. I also invited my principal and he showed up. Now, I didn't know if he would or not. He was fine with who I was because he knew I did good work.

What about your students? Did they know? Kids are curious, how would you answer something like, What'd you do this weekend? 

They didn't ask, they didn't care. I think they might have known but at that age what do you understand? I don't know.

They knew I would perform sometimes, so there would be questions about that, How was your show this weekend? But they never asked about my home life. I feel like they must have known. Again, it wasn't talked about — that was the norm.

Plus, I had that morality clause in the back of my mind the whole time. I didn’t want to admit to something and give them a reason to fire me.

After seven years, Ron decided to leave The School of The Arts. Because of its supportive environment, the district insisted his principal take on students with severe behaviors who were struggling in other buildings. They were admitted without an audition and most of them had no interest in the arts. Ron found it difficult to run the same high-quality productions he was used to, so he left at the end of the year without another job lined up.

Thankfully, Ron found a theater position in a district adjacent to his old one, Raytown Quality Schools. When Ron interviewed at Raytown High, they wanted him to manage the theater, in addition to his full-time teaching duties. Ron was opposed to taking over the theater manager position because of the extra time commitment — he would have to be present every time his theater was used. However, the principal he interviewed with wouldn’t budge on breaking the position down into two separate roles. After his interview, Ron made his way over to central office to interview with HR. There he ran into an administrator who knew of his work. She called the principal at Raytown High and insisted they do what’s necessary to get Ron hired. The theater manager position went to someone else and Ron got to focus on teaching.

Ron and Raytown High students, class of 1999.

How do things feel, at the start of this new position, in a new building?

Well, let’s see, it was 1997 and I began by wearing my wedding ring. That was new for me. I remember a couple of teachers who I would normally eat lunch with, and they asked if I was married. I said yes, but I would leave it at that. I didn’t want to give up details. There were some older gay teachers there with me, but they weren’t open about it. But again, people knew.

I was so afraid of the administration there. They were intimidating, former football guys. I was stressed about that, what would happen if they found out. Eventually one of the vice principals kind of reached out, in a way. He had grown up with a family friend who was gay, who was his parents’ age. I came to realize he was fine with me being gay. I knew I could talk to him about stuff.

So you really had to sniff out your safe people?

Yes, but again, I lucked out because everyone was kind. It was a somewhat religious community, too, which made me nervous. But even the people I knew who were very religious when they saw my work, they didn't have an issue with me.

Part of it was also me trying to be funny, trying to attract people and get them to like me. The only gay characters I knew growing up were Paul Lynde, you know, and Charles Nelson Reilly. And maybe I didn’t even know what they were back then, but I could understand they were different. But most of all, they were funny. I felt like that’s what I had to be, too. Kind of how the overweight kid might compensate by being funny. It’s a trick you learn to be embraced by others. I would even make fun of my own gayness, so others knew I wasn’t a threat. I wanted to let them know that I was in on the joke, too.

What is that like to be putting so much of yourself into this career, into your position, as well as your buildings, while simultaneously feeling like one of the most important aspects of your life has to be left unsaid, or hidden?

It's hard. It's very hard because you've got people with a picture of their spouse on their desk, with their kids, and I can’t do that. And then, I am in Missouri where I can still get fired for being gay, except in Kansas City and St. Louis.

How did the parents receive you in this new building? Because it isn’t KCMO, this is a suburb. It’s more buttoned up and like you said, it can be religious.

Yes, so, I won the parents over early on when I took my kids on a field trip and all hell broke loose. I took a group of juniors and seniors out to do children's shows. We would get a bus and perform at the elementary schools. We are on a bus, it’s fall, and it’s my second year in this district.

We're going down 40 highway and I hear this boom, boom, boom. At first, I thought it was the bus backfiring. One of the kids yells that he just got hit. We had passed some kids walking on the shoulder, as we were driving down this road. There was an alternative school in the area and these kids must have left early. As it turns out, they had thrown little green acorns at the bus.

Anyway, one acorn went through the window and hit one of my students in the eye. Of course, we were worried about fragments of glass in his eyes. He’s bleeding and winds up with a scratched cornea, although I don’t know it at the time. I just see blood on this kid’s face.

I was so mad. I get the bus driver to pull over and tell my kids to stay on the bus. I see those kids who threw the acorns still walking down the street toward us. I get out to confront them and I recognize one of the kids from my last school. He had transferred in and had major behavior problems, like admitted to torturing small animals-type problems. I was like, Hey, I know you. Then the kids took off and ran into an apartment complex, so I followed them.

What were you going to do when you caught them?

Oh, I don’t know. But you don’t mess with my kids. So, the Independence police showed up; the bus driver must have called them. Then a car shows up with three of my administrators. The police find a few of the kids in the building, they pull them out and put them in the back seat of their cop car. I'm screaming at the kids through the window and the police are holding me back.

My vice principal said later, We can't believe you ran after those kids. What if they would have had a gun? All I knew was somebody had hurt one of my students, so of course I was going after them.

Now, by the time we returned to the school building, the rumors had circulated and it had turned into that I had been shot. Another student had been raped. You would have thought we made national news with how the kids were talking.

We had an open house night soon after that. And all the parents thought I was the best thing ever because they knew I would take care of their kids. It opened a big door for me. Also, people knew not to mess with me, too.

So, this building came around pretty quickly to support you, similarly to your first building, due to the quality of your productions, and then you had this heroic story circulating about you, too. Was that always the case, was Raytown High always a positive experience for you?

It was, as much as it could be, given the times. Later, I wound up having administration support me in an unexpected way. One time I was sharing my fear with an AP about what might happen if there was a tragedy in our family. Jeff and I weren’t legally married and I wondered aloud about what I would do if something bad happened. Because I wouldn’t qualify for bereavement leave.

Then, within a few months, Jeff's brother died from a drowning. It was so sudden. Jeff called me and the school day had just started. So, I asked my AP, panicked, What do I do? What do I do? He says that I need to leave, immediately.

About 15 minutes later, the head principal stopped by my room and said, Mr. Meyer, you don't look like you're feeling very well. You need to go home. Okay, so that’s how he wanted to handle it. Good. So I knew that my building administration would support me. They had my back.

Your building knew how to work the system so you could be there for Jeff and not be penalized.

Yes, and it was a relief because I didn't know what to do. Do I leave and get in trouble? I followed the rules. I did not take off very often.

Then, a few months later Jeff's mom died, very suddenly. I took off like three or four days for that, on top of a few days for his brother. My administration covered me again and entered the sick days for me.

Ron with former Raytown High students at a wedding, classes 1999-2004

That must have felt good, knowing your administrators would cover for you, if necessary. How about the kids? How aware were your students of your sexuality? These aren’t middle schoolers. High schoolers can ask more pointed questions about teachers’ private lives.

Yes, and I did have a kid ask me once point-blank, Are you gay? It made me uncomfortable because she wasn’t that close to me. I didn’t know why she was asking, but she just said it. I didn’t know what to say, so I said no.

Again, I felt it was known without me saying it. I felt accepted there, as much as I could, given the times. Jeff would come to my shows, the kids knew who he was. So the kids picked it up on it but they also knew not to talk about it.

Right, the kids probably followed the national culture around homosexuality, understanding it was a thing that existed, but also, there was a stigma attached to it.

Correct, it still wasn't legal to get married. But, then there were shows like Will and Grace, which were helpful, having gay people on a national platform. Kids were getting exposed to things on TV, they were seeing more gay characters. Whereas in the ‘90s, you didn’t have much of that.

That wraps up the first half of Ron’s career. His story was so compelling that I have turned it into a two-parter. Next week, you can read as Ron moves to his final building to finish out his career, the same building where we bonded during lunch duty. When we arrived, the administration was holding a bible study with select staff members. Spoiler: Ron and I weren’t selected to attend the bible study.

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