Issue #15: An Interview With a Theater Teacher - Part II

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

Part one of Ron’s story covered the first half of his career. Highlights include: teaching in an urban performing arts school, marrying his husband, Jeff, moving to an adjacent suburban district, and chasing down criminals on a busy highway who had hurled acorns through a bus window, injuring one of his students.

In 2008, after 11 years at Raytown High, Ron’s frustrations boiled over due to not having an allotted budget for his plays, which could cost upwards of $14,000. Instead, he was expected to make his budget through box office sales. When Ron announced his intentions to leave the district, parents petitioned the school board to create a budget for him. His budget was approved after Ron had already accepted a job in a neighboring district at Truman High School, where he had been recruited.

What struggles did you walk into in your new building?

Well, to start, the kids thought I was a dictator. They really thought I was mean. Before me, they had been given everything, so it was all a struggle.

Admin asked me to start with The Wizard of Oz. So, for instance, when I asked a student to build the cellar door, he built it very haphazardly. I looked at it and explained that it wouldn’t work. Then the student argued, Yes, it’s done, I’m not doing any more on it. I explained how to fix it and the student refused to make corrections. So, that’s what I was dealing with.  

I wasn’t getting any help from administration, either. I had two guys who were seniors who got in a fight with green paint. We had a lot of green paint, of course, it’s Wizard of Oz. They threw it at each other and got it all over our black curtains. I asked the administrators to come in, expecting consequences. But they did nothing. Even with the evidence in front of them, nothing was done.

And then there was hall duty. Where's your badge? They don't have it. Okay, just go to class. We couldn’t give out consequences. I realized that's why these kids felt like they could ask for anything, because they were getting away with everything. There was no real strong order there. And I don’t mean that everyone has to be iron-fisted. But just don’t let these kids walk all over the faculty. So, anyway, I had to deal with all of that. It was so bad that I didn’t think I would come back for year two. And Raytown was asking me to come back.

With a difficult start here, how did that make you feel about protecting your sexuality? After being in two buildings where you had worked over time to be able to be yourself?

Right, I didn’t know much about this faculty and I didn’t know much about the climate, as a whole. In the beginning, I just thought I was up against the kids.

Then, I was talking with a fellow teacher and I mentioned that I had a husband.  I noticed that the teacher had a somewhat shocked facial response. Later, I go to the office to request a purchase order and one of the secretaries glares at me and slams the PO down on the counter. I mean, like really hit her hand on the counter with it. And I thought, What the hell? Turns out that teacher had gone up and told the office that he found out I was gay. Much later on, this same secretary came around and grew to love me like a son.

But I had no idea how right-wing conservative that school was until about a month into working there. Of course, they don’t mention stuff like that in the interview process. I kept wondering, How in the hell did I get hired here? 

Thankfully, I was able to make friends with the music faculty. They liked what I was doing with the department. Before I got there, they wanted nothing to do with the theater department. They thought it was just a bunch of silliness. Then they saw how serious I was about things, and they came on board with me.

But, I also had several teachers who would not even look at me. I would say hi to them in the hall and they would keep walking. I'm not exaggerating. I just didn't know what to do with that. I kept thinking, This is kind of crazy, this place.

Now, I will say that if the kids knew, I knew they didn't care. None of them ever said anything about it to me. But it was clear that the faculty knew and some seemed to have a problem with it.

It's also worth mentioning in that building there was another element that could have presented roadblock to you being accepted — the teachers were having a Bible study with admin.

Oh yeah. Yeah. Which freaked me out. And I was never invited. Was it only men who attended? (It was.) They would even say anti-Catholic things. To combat it, my music friends and I would have a non-prayer meeting at El Maguey on Wednesday afternoons, when the margaritas were cheap.

Still, it must have been an extra layer of stress to exist in that building. What was it like, to report to work there and have co-workers openly be opposed to you?

It was very stressful, knowing I could be fired for being who I am while being surrounded by people who don’t like me, who make it obvious they don’t like me. I mean, they won’t even acknowledge me in the hallway!

But, I had a breakthrough. And just like in my other buildings, once they saw my work, they came around. Wizard of Oz is what won me over. I wasn’t very happy with it, but everyone else was. You would have thought I was Harry Truman. (Truman High School was named for Harry S. Truman.) They were acting like it was the best thing that had ever happened. Teachers were coming over, telling me how much they loved the show, letting me know that they thought I did good work.

There was a faculty member who had a child in the show. He wasn’t openly unfriendly to me, but he was part of the group of people who were. After the show, he was nice to me and started including me.

Ron and Truman High students, class of 2016.

So things started looking up for you pretty quickly, after that rough entry with the success of your first play?

Yes. When I think about that time, I chalk it up to the fact that maybe the staff didn’t know any other gay people. Then when they got to know me, they started to figure out that I was just like everybody else. Plus, you know, I wasn’t standing on a soapbox, demanding rights, or dressed in loud rainbows. I wasn't hitting them over the head with it.

One person, though, who I couldn’t break through to was my head principal. I worked hard to befriend her and typically I had a great relationship with my head principals. But, she would never ask about my husband. Even after all of the questions I would ask her about her family. She wouldn’t reciprocate to me, never.

Some of the APs, though, I could tell, I could see the signs that they didn’t care. So, I could talk to them, let them know who I was.

Until the time I got written up for saying “shit” in front of a kid.

How did that get reported to admin?

The student called her parent and told them and then they called the school. Honestly, I don’t even remember saying it. I was angry. The kid had left the classroom without asking and I got onto her. Which is how that building was.

So, my assistant principal at the time came down and talked to me and I said, I'm tired. I feel overworked. I told him what happened and I explained that I have a lot of things to deal with that he probably wouldn’t understand. I said, Being a gay man, I have to be better than good.

I don't want any grounds to be fired, to be disciplined. Being a gay teacher, I felt I had to win people over with my work. Right? It’s just like how a lot of women feel, doing more than a man to prove themselves. So he wrote up that I was gay and said it would be put in my file. He told me to sign the write-up and I refused.

What was the exact verbiage, do you remember?

It was something along the lines of, Ron confided that he was gay and that he felt he had a lot more expectations. So, we go back and forth about me signing it. I refused and he said I would be found as insubordinate by central office.

So, I go out and I talk to our principal. And she totally ignores me. She won’t even look at me as I am speaking. She tells me to sign it.

Thankfully, I have a contact at central office. I explained what was happening. I said I don’t have a problem signing about saying “shit” in front of a student. But I wasn’t going to allow them to have documentation of my sexuality like that. I was terrified of having that in my file. I could be fired, easily, for that omission.

Thankfully, the district lawyers agreed and told them to retract it. So, it was rewritten and I signed it. But then I was on edge with my building administration. They all ended up leaving a few years later, but I never felt I was on good footing with them. I was actually looking for other jobs pretty consistently for the first five years I was there.

Ron and Jeff, making it legal in Iowa.

But, you stuck it out. Why did you stay?

It helped that the admin team all left. It also really helped that in 2013, Jeff and I were able to get legally married in Iowa because Governor Nixon — thank God for Governor Nixon — he signed an executive order that Missouri would recognize marriages from other states. So, we ran up to an Iowa courthouse in Des Moines and did it.

Then, at the beginning of that school year, the kids and I were talking about their summers, who did what shows, like you do at the start of school. These were my seniors. Then they asked, What did you do, Mr. Meyer? And I said, Well, Jeff and I got married. Then they all applauded and were real happy and everything. Again, they all knew Jeff, they loved when he would come to the shows.

How did it feel to admit 23 years into your career that you were married?

It felt great. But do you know what was even better? I had several sets of parents come up at open house, a couple of weeks after I told the kids and they also congratulated me.

That's huge for that community.

Yes, I know. And it was an odd feeling. Yeah. And I thought, Wow, we’ve come a long way. I couldn’t imagine doing that 10 years earlier.

But now, we have all of this backlash, which happens with progress. Two steps forward, one back. You know, with ‘Don’t Say Gay’ down in Florida, for instance. I have a nephew who lives down there. And he’s got two children, they are babies now, but when Hazel is in school and says, I went and stayed with my uncles up in Kansas City and they are married.

Uh-huh, now now, can't say it, don't say it! What's that going to tell her?

Something's wrong. It’s unspeakably wrong, actually.

Right, she’s so young now, and who knows what will happen. It’s just sad that there’s a chance, she couldn’t even talk about us if she wanted to.

Did you have that experience when you announced your marriage at Truman, where it was two steps forward, one back?

Yes, I had a student teacher and he was pretty cool. We were having parent-teacher conferences, and I had a mother come in with her daughter. We were talking about the scene that she was doing. And I can't remember what it was, something from or something, some bad girl scene. The mom says, I'm fine with her playing that kind of role. I'm fine. Just don't give her any roles, you know, where they're gay. 

My student teacher looked at me and I was like, There you have it. That's what they really think. They would rather have their kid play a murderer than a gay person. So, that was very eye-opening to him.

But you know, it’s all been hard for me to watch, this regression. I feel thankful that I was never really harassed about it at work. I've never had anyone call me a derogative name. I do think I was good for Truman, I really do.

I think you were too. 

They realized I wasn't a monster and that I could think and feel the same way that they did about things. Plus, I was a team player who was on board and I really cared.

I am also fortunate, if I had a kid who had issues with me with my sexuality, I didn’t know. Because all of the students knew. They just didn’t say anything about it and that's fine.

Right, they figured out how to be in your class, despite whatever prejudices they may have held. Unlike that secretary, slamming purchase orders down on the counter.

Yes, and maybe it has to do with the time they grew up in. You know, with Will and Grace on TV. It was much more noticeable for them as opposed to when I grew up. I didn’t know anything about that sort of stuff. Hell, I didn’t even know the Village People were gay! I just thought they were good dancers. How stupid was I?

How did your career end up wrapping up? Because it wrapped up in COVID. 

It was terrible. I had originally intended to retire in 2023. Then, I left in 2020 because I couldn't handle the workload anymore. I had six preps, I was directing three shows. I couldn't handle the BS. I couldn't handle being treated like a non-professional. I got tired of more being put on my plate when nothing was taken off. Plus, I would constantly think about my job from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed. It wasn’t healthy. I couldn’t continue to live like that.

Your work week was what, probably 60-70 hours? At the end of your career, when you should be slowing down. 

Yeah, at least. But, you know, then COVID hit. I felt really bad for my kids because we had this set about halfway built. The actors were off-script. It’s my last show.

What show did you choose?

Picnic. It’s the play I did in high school that made me realize I wanted a career in theater.

So, when the kids went home on Friday, March 13th, I was telling them, Go over your lines, we'll pick up where we left off, we are in good shape! You know, We're going to do this! It'll be fine! I even got permission to go over their lines via FaceTime. And of course, it got pushed back and pushed back and pushed back. So it's like, this isn't happening. I felt awful for the kids. And then people were like, Ron, you don't get to have your swan song. I was more worried about the kids. It just is what it is, nothing you can do about it.

How did you reconcile that, your career ending like that, in a pandemic, the final show not performed?

It was really difficult. I wound up getting special recognition later, I consider it my swan song.

I was in Chicago to see a former student of mine, Mamie Parris. She came through the Kansas City School of the Arts. She’s performing with the Chicago Grand Park Symphony. She’s a Broadway performer, she’s known for “Memory” from Cats.

So, she comes out on stage and starts talking about how she got into theater. Her mom used to be a flight attendant and someone left a cassette tape of Cats. Her mom brought it home to her and she used to grab a hairbrush and act out the songs and everything. Then she said, I went to a performing arts school and this man opened up the world of theater to me and introduced me to what I do today. Then she said, He's here in the audience and I would like him to stand up right now. So, I stand up and everyone in the audience and orchestra is applauding. Many are even standing. It was like the end of Mr. Holland’s Opus.

Ron, Jeff, and Mamie Parris on Broadway.

Did you cry?

Well, the symphony was up there, the conductor, you know, and my friends are bawling, just bawling. There I am, trying to keep my shit together. Later, she said she hadn't planned on doing it. But she was backstage, and she was telling the other singer in the show who I was and she decided it was a good idea to tell everyone. So, in a way, I got my swan song.

You got a very personalized, grand swan song. What advice would you give an LGBTQ person who wants to go into education now? 

Sadly, if you had asked me two or three years earlier, I probably would have said, Be who you are, raise your flag, and do not worry about anyone coming down on you now. But with the backlash over the last few years with Moms for Liberty, looking to destroy a person’s career . . . . They watch these teachers with a magnifying glass, waiting for them to mess up because they don't approve of who they are. That worries me.

Would you say your advice now is probably more like how you existed in the earlier part of your career — know your surroundings, find your safe people?

Absolutely. But I would still say to go into it if they had a passion for it. My job was harder than hell and incredibly time-consuming, but I appreciate everything I went through. I appreciated what I learned and the people I encountered along the way. I know I did good things. I know I made a difference.

Looking back on your career, would you have done anything differently?

One of my favorite movies is It's a Wonderful Life. I love how it shows the impact you can have on others, the little things that happen to others, how we are connected. You know, with my life, I've had a rough life, with abuse and terrible things. Recently, I went back to therapy and I realized how all of the parts of my life fit together. They all played together, they were meant to be. If I died now, I wouldn't feel cheated at all. I'm pretty happy with the way things turned out.

Ron playing Balaga in the musical Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.

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