Drew Coyne: The Day After

Drew Coyne is one of Staples High School’s most popular and beloved teachers. The US History Honors and Advanced Placement Economics instructor graduated from Cornell University, then earned a master’s in education at Harvard University. He was nominated for Westport Teacher of the Year.

The day after the presidential election, he was overwhelmed with emotions. In his classrooms, students had a variety of feelings — despair, excitement, anger, fear, elation, defensiveness and more.

Like any good teacher, he seized the teachable moment. He asked them to write down their thoughts. 

They asked if he would do the same. He did. Here’s what he wrote:

I remember a time when I Asked Jeeves if being gay would pass. Would liking boys just go away, or could I will it away?  Was being gay wrong?

Drew Coyne

Drew Coyne

I asked. I waited. And waited as Jeeves moved at a glacial pace. The more pressing the answer, it seemed, the longer Jeeves needed to search for that elusive response.  

Jeeves came back with some answers. This is “normal” one site said. Most boys experience this for 3 months. It will pass.

“Awesome,” I thought, feeling relief that it was just some speed bump on the road toward normalcy for a kid from small-town, upstate New York.  

But I kept reading. The church website, a reliable source to a teenager in the ’90s, said that if the “symptoms” lasted any longer I would need medical help. There were cures. Medicines and “therapy” promised normalcy. There were ways to make me “healthy,” to make me straight.

My defense mechanisms kicked in. My walls went up. I would hide this and protect myself. And, so, a great 10-year masquerade began.

—– —– —–  

Flash forward to this week. I’m numb. As Florida turned red, Ohio flipped, and the Blue Wall of Michigan and Wisconsin rusted over into an ominous red hue, my stomach sank.  And in that moment, unexpectedly and unconsciously, my walls — emotional defense mechanisms from my youth — resumed their guard.

As I drove to school, even NPR’s words couldn’t reach me. My walls, designed for protection, were back. They took energy and focus. I lost the ability to listen as America’s new trajectory was announced to people like me.

Entering Staples, I braced myself to lead.  My students responded to reflective prompts: This morning I’m feeling… or The Westport Bubble…

Most Staples High School students could not vote last Tuesday. But that did not mean they were uninvolved in the outcome of the election.

Most Staples High School students could not vote last Tuesday. But that did not mean they were uninvolved in the outcome of the election.

As we shared, my oft-optimistic students were different. One wrote, “This morning, I’m feeling scared and worried for our economic systems.” Another said, “I woke up and panicked. I got in the shower and cried.” One scribbled, “I am thankful that I am a wealthy, white male because, realistically, I’m going to be OK.  But for others, even checks and balances won’t protect them.”  

While a majority of my students were despondent, others found joy. One reflected that “I am feeling optimistic, yet somewhat surprised. I can’t wait to see these changes.”  

During the day, teenagers wept openly. They cried because they were afraid for their rights as women. They cried because a student’s adopted black brother saw racism triumph in his eyes. They cried for a lost cause after canvassing in Pennsylvania.

I cried because for the first time in their lives, their walls were up.

—– —– —–  

Only later did I recognize my coping mechanisms, reflect on my identity, and understand the election’s repercussions.

In 2007, still closeted as a college junior, I ventured off Cornell’s campus and, for the first time, lived beyond upstate New York.  In Washington, D.C. I took classes and began my first internship for then-Senator Clinton. The Hill transformed me by helping her address systemic problems with the VA, navigating the appropriations process, and seeing her tireless work ethic. Those moments and the people have forever informed my vision.  

In college, Drew Coyne interned with then-Senator Hillary Clinton.

In college, Drew Coyne interned with then-Senator Hillary Clinton.

But it was another moment that helped me tear down the walls that kept me in that dark, lonely closet. On P Street a gay couple pushed a stroller with their child past me. That’s it. For so many, this isn’t the event that catapults a gay man out of hiding. But it did for me. It was profound because it was the first time in my life that being gay was viewed as normal. Piece by piece, a wall began to fall.

—– —– —–  

Arthur Golden writes that “Adversity is like a strong wind. It… tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that afterward we see ourselves as we really are, and not merely as we might like to be.” The 2016 campaign symbolizes those winds that have left me whiplashed.  They have revealed a vulnerable, jolted and, at times, insecure gay man.  

And in this moment of vulnerability, I think I know why.  

Last summer, Drew Coyne accompanied Staples High School students to the Haw Cong Asia-Pacific Young Leaders Summit in Singapore.

Drew Coyne in Kyoto last spring.

Back in those Jeeves years, I learned to protect myself, to shield myself from politicians who told me I was wrong. I learned that this was far from a wholly partisan issue. In 1993 the Religious Freedom Restoration Act had 170 congressional co-sponsors. While originally intended to protect religious minorities, conservative politicians used those laws to carve out methods to discriminate LGBTQ Americans.  

Candidate, eventual congressman and future vice president Mike Pence embodies a political generation that told me I needed to be fixed. During his 2000 campaign, he was one of many who encouraged federal funding for conversion therapies, including shock therapy.

His website stated that “resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.” The website continued, “Congress should oppose any effort to put gay and lesbian relationships on an equal legal status with heterosexual marriage.” And “Congress should oppose any effort to recognize homosexual’s [sic] as a discreet [sic] and insular minority” that can be protected by similar laws afforded to women and ethnic minorities.  

Today, Mr. Pence and like-minded leaders have swept into power in a wave of angst at the status quo. I understand their suffering — and am privileged to not worry about where my next meal is coming from, or if my heating bill is paid. But those leaders who have promised economic change for America’s downtrodden will also advance alt-right social policies that destabilize minority group protections. Indeed, the right-wing National Organization for Marriage is already spelling out a wish-list for President Trump, including repealing marriage equality.

These efforts that are unfolding remind me that, to many Americans, I am less of a citizen. As such, it does not make this transition easy. Indeed, it is a transition not toward a new America, but one that I knew as a teenager. Only now do I realize that Mr. Trump has already built a wall. It is a wall I knew for years and one that caused great suffering. Today, while not nearly as high, my wall is up.

And I fear that Mr. Trump’s accession is doing the same in my classroom.  How many students who are questioning their sexual identity will see the nation’s role models telling them they should be fixed or undeserving of equality? How many young women in my classroom will have to know that a man accused of sexual assault was supported by 53% of white women?  How many immigrants will feel like they are not welcome, regardless of their status?  How many religious minorities must fear hate?

So, as I cope, I am tasked with choosing how to dismantle the emotional wall that Mr. Trump’s campaign built with such ferocity.  Today, I don’t know how to surmount his creation, but I will be resilient. I will treat all of my students with kindness and love. Still, I worry, as an educator and gay man, that his campaign has already succeeded in building a wall in so many of us even before he has assumed the mantle of the presidency.  

32 responses to “Drew Coyne: The Day After

  1. *Heinlein… I NEVER recall the ending of his name properly…

  2. William Spencer

    I would like to ask Mr. Coyne how he feels about the fact that the first president in history to appoint a openly gay cabinet member will be……… President Trump? I’m a Trump supporter, and don’t fit ANY of the narratives that have been pushed this election season. But for some reason, nobody asks what I think. They’re too busy looking for people crying our protesting. Keep in mind that in 1944 we had 18 year olds storming the beaches of France to protect freedom. Now they’re crying in the shower. There are enough people in this country angry about that, which is why the election went the way it did.

    • You’re angry that 18-year-olds are crying in the shower instead of “storming the beaches of France.” So you voted for Trump. Solid.

    • Jean Whitehead

      Can you pleas elaborate on/explain what you mean about D-Day versus “crying in the shower”? It seems a very strange comparison and I don’t know what it means….”there are enough people in this country angry about” what?
      The 18-year-olds you refer to were, indeed, fighting to protect freedom. They were fighting the man who had risen to power by inciting and encouraging fear and intolerance. Gradually his m.o. was accepted by his country, if not embraced. Ignored, if not approved.
      Vulnerable populations are now being threatened, albeit more subtly, by Mr. Trump and Mr, Pence. They themselves are not advocating violence against certain races, orientations or policies, But are they discouraging their supporters from doing so?
      Their supporters chant “Jew-S-A!” at their rallies. Their supporters assault the press verbally and physically. Their supporters beat up gay people and are a threat to women. Their supporters are largely intolerant of some religions and don’t seem to understand the difference between being a Muslim and being a suicide bomber. And I don’t recall the KKK having a victory parade for any other president-elect.
      Of course I am not suggesting that Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence are insane fascist dictators. But their ability to use segregationist tactics to rise to power, and their willingness to pretend otherwise, suggests they might be comfortable in that role henceforth.
      I believe people are nervous because they don’t recall a candidate like this succeeding in their lifetimes…..and they do recall years of social progress, slow but consistent, which gave them a feeling of optimism and hope.
      The 18-year-olds from 1944, those that I knew later in their lives, would surely be baffled.

    • Werner Liepolt

      I appreciate and honor Mr Coyne for his courageous statement and dedication to his students, profession and nation.

      So would the several WWII veterans in my family. It’s what they fought for.

    • William Spencer, I would like to ask you to read the article by Drew Coyne just one more time, not just with your eyes and your brain, but with your heart. Read it to understand and connect, instead of reading to deflect, resist, or rationalize your vote. Do you understand what I’m saying?

  3. John Patterson

    My son absolutely adores Mr. Coyne! JP first met him at Coleytown and when JP graduated to Staples, so did Mr. Coyne! Last weekend we past Drew on a little trail up in Weston’s Devils Den. We all know that Mr. Coyne remains JP’s favorite teacher ever.

    We were all smiling and optimistic then that the election would be over and our candidate would be the first ever women elected to the Whitehouse.

    I am hoping that someday Mr. Coyne will run for office – and if I ever see his name on the ballot for the first ever gay person, I will vote for him – because this country could really use normal (if that mean little cling, kind, capable, trustworthy!).

    You have my vote Mr. Coyne!!

    • John Patterson

      Sorry for the typos…. *woman. *loving, kind…. and I meant to say first ever Gay President. I didn’t attend Westport schools like my kids but I am much better than this! Haha

  4. Drew Coyne’s sage words echo what so many of us feel ATM: fear, uncertainty…anything but ambivalence. For sure,Trump’s campaign scratched the underbelly of our country. However, I do think the DNC was complicit in pushing Clinton’s nomination over Sanders’. The news media also all but ignored him. It is now time to reflect and rebuild our country. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/04/america-tyranny-donald-trump.html

  5. We hear you and have your back Mr. Coyne:)

  6. Marjorie Almansi

    Mr. Coyne continues to be a role model for us all. Spending the day in the city yesterday, watching the anti-Trump rallies, it gave me comfort to be surrounded by so many different groups coming together to oppose this election. As a mom of 3 boys, I have not been able to find the right words to comfort my kids and assure them it will all be okay – because we know it may not be. Thank you, Mr. Coyne, for so eloquently putting into words, what we are all feeling. We stand with you.

  7. Excellent thank you for writing this – indeed we have have your back.

  8. Jo Ann Davidson

    A fine letter to share with your class and readers. Food for thought. I’m proud of our Westport teachers.

  9. Some people were very upset in 2008 when a President who was a community organizer declared his candidacy for the Senate in the home of a convicted terrorist was elected President. That President went on to appoint an AG who freed convicted terrorists, and a Secretary of the Treasury who did not pay his taxes. That President went on to kill Americans without dues process and kill hundreds of innocent women and children in places like Pakistan. That President threw the American health care system into chaos.That President has been repudiated. His legacy is Donald Trump.

    • Dick Lowenstein

      And now we have, until proven otherwise, a president-elect who likely cheated on his Federal income taxes. (Can a president-elect be indicted for tax fraud? Probably not if the jurisdiction is Florida)

  10. It has been said that everyone is entitled to their own bad opinion. I think the same can be said of feelings. Feelings are your reality. You can not tell someone how to feel. I have never experienced what Drew feels but I can understand it. What I find most distressing (and I am fearful of) is there does not appear to be any empathy, understanding or recognition of the feelings many Americans are having. Little about bringing people together. No acknowledgement which only makes those feelings and fears more real.

    • Caissie St.Onge

      I think you can understand that it will be hard for many of us to “come together” as you say, because the folks we will have to come together with want some of our families broken apart, some of our families sent out of the country, some of our families to be put on watch lists because of our religions and some of the members of each of our families to become unable to plan how and when we have children. How do you come together with someone who hates you? I am sincerely and respectfully asking what you would do. I’m interested to hear.

      • Not sure either candidate wanted to follow through with campaign promises, rather just say/promise what it takes to be elected.
        We shall see.

  11. Jaime Bairaktaris

    As one of those 18 year olds in Town, and also as someone who opposes parts of both Clinton and Trump politics, I’d like to say that one cannot compare 1944 with 2016 and that doing so is only adding to the teenage population’s detriment,and with that, our nation’s future. Much has changed in 72 years – I’ve been able to learn that right here on this blog. Teenagers today are facing anxiety levels at extreme altitudes from outside forces that were not around 72 years ago. But what’s different about the anxiety we’re facing today and that of which teens faced in 1944? Nothing. Anxiety is an internal, chemically induced phenomena creating the same symptoms – one of which is quite literally the feeling of dying – since 1944. That doesn’t change whether it’s a beach in Normandy or a classroom at Staples. The current rhetoric surrounding teens being melodramatic is destroying the already unsupported thoughts and emotions of many, and with that, is breaking us all down one comment at a time. Did I cry or go into a deep state of depression on Wednesday morning? No – but that gives me no right to delegitimize other people’s feelings because they reacted differently than I. I am seeing what this election has done to friends, how afraid they truly are. Honestly, I’m not quite sure how one can judge another’s fear if they do not experience it them-self, a bit of empathy can go a very long way. Mr. Trump will be our president, the Earth will still spin come January 20th, and we will rise as a nation. But if you choose to criticize our nation’s children, teens, and adults – you are the one that will take down this country, not Trump. He only has as much influence as we let him take – no matter what laws, regulations, and rhetoric he may spew from his mouth – we need to remember that kindness will outlast and outgrow any ink on a page.

    Thanks to Mr. Coyne and Dan for this and actively protecting our future.

    • I hope one day you decide to run for office. Your approach is unifying, logical and balanced.

    • Mary (Cookman) Schmerker Staples 1958

      Jamie and Mr. Coyne. You give me great hope for our future. Jamie, you write with depth, understanding and wisdom. Mr. Coyne, I am the mother of a High School Teacher. I have great respect for you and the work you are doing. Keep on keeping on. We need to hear both of your voices. I hope many listen. If they disagree, with you don’t worry or get discouraged. We need both of you.. The first amendment is first for a very good reason. Words can influence others and educate and change minds. Words are more powerful and long lasting.

  12. Jane Guttridge

    As a parent whose son you have taught – brilliantly, both in history and in real social issues might I entreat you to carry on. In these times we need educated, kind, thoughtful,messages for our children. I have witnessed that you excel in this. Bravo for your essay – please know you have our support always.

  13. As parent whose son(s) you have taught, I am grateful that you decided to join our community. You have shared your deepest concerns and feelings with our kids and now with us. You teach them something new every day, not just from a text book from your life. We value you and the perspective and support that you have provided to our children. You will always be welcome here – with us – in our town.

  14. Freedom comes at a very large price, the price of giving up our prejudices, viewpoints, and narrow mindedness in exchange for empathy, compassion and real love, Love that is unconditional. In a world where diversity exists as a quality of existence itself, there is only one race, the race of humanity, there is only one family, the family of humanity, and there is a common message through all the various religions, to Love one another as we have Loved Him and Her. We’re very proud to have you, Mr. Coyne, as part of our community. You are a voice of true emotional and philosophical awareness in the midst of our town of freedom, Westport.

  15. Amy Chatterjee

    Thank you Mr. Coyne for your honesty and for keeping this conversation going. Sharing the feelings of so many young people in this town is important and needs to be read and re-read over and over. What a gift that you are there for them each and every day.

  16. I’ve had the distinct pleasure to co-teach a lesson with Drew Coyne while he taught at Bedford Middle School. We were judges for the eighth grade Mock Trial. We listened intently as students acted as witnesses, attorneys, jurists. Because of the high level of respect and expectation set by Mr. Coyne, the students rose to the occasion with amazing cases, compelling arguments, and passionately convincing statements. Experiencing the law in a simulation in 8th grade was a compelling experience for students, and inspired them to consider the deeper question of what it means to be an engaged citizen. Mr. Coyne’s teaching helps each student think critically, which strengthens our democracy.

  17. Katherine Bruan

    I have never met Mr. Coyne but he was my son, Nick Hooper’s favorite teacher that year. I can see why, what an honest and intelligent piece. (and Mr. Coyne is definitely the best dressed man in Westport)

    Thank you Mr. Coyne for that teachable moment and for exposing our kids to your wisdom and kindness.

  18. Bonnie Bradley

    Drew Coyne, your words inspire my heart and my spirit, they give me hope for our future in America. Thank you for this contribution to Dan’s blog.