Ariel: Tell me about the Triangle Program. Who started it and why? What was the need for a program like this?
Jeffrey: The Triangle Program opened in September 1995. There was a group of concerned Toronto Board of Education trustees who wanted to start the program. John Campey was the lead trustee. Kathleen Wynne and Olivia Chow were the other two trustees who helped spearhead it. Tony Gambini was a school social worker who was pushing for the program. Tony was working with a Master of Social Work student, Steven Solomon, and they were interested in finding out whether there was a disproportionate number of LGBTQ youth dropping out of school. They started doing exit interviews with students who had recently left Toronto Board of Education schools and found that, yes, there were a lot of LGBTQ students. They asked them why they were dropping out, and the students said they were being pushed or forced out because of homophobia and intersexism that existed in the school system.
When Tony Gambini took the results of the study to the trustees, John Campey, who was an out gay man, Olivia Chow, who was a supporter of the community, and Kathleen Wynne, who was an out woman, decided to create an alternative school space where those LGBTQ students could re-engage and start to find success in our school system so they could go on to the workforce or postsecondary schooling. They looked at existing alternative programs. Oasis Alternative School had out staff, as well as several satellite programs, so they were used to having things not centrally located. They found staff who were interested in starting the school, and they needed to find a place where it could be housed. They approached Rev. Brent Hawkes at Metropolitan Community Church, because this church was established for the LGBTQ community, for people who had been pushed out of other faith groups. The Reverend thought it was a great idea, because this place sits empty during the week. He approached the board of directors at the church, they approved it, the Toronto Board of Education approved it, and the school was opened in 1995.
The first teacher here was John Terpstra. He left a very prestigious position as head of English at Jarvis Collegiate. It was the last year or two of his teaching and he wanted to start this program. He joined the Oasis staff. They had about ten students in the program to begin with, and they focused mostly on Grade 9 and 10 courses. Over the years it’s expanded. More staff have come into the program; we’ve had as many as three teachers. Right now we’re at two, but positioned to get our third teacher back. We expanded about ten years ago, right, Anthony?
Anthony: Yes, this is my eleventh year.
Jeffrey: We expanded to include Grade 11 and 12, because students were telling us they didn’t want to go to another school after Triangle. They felt they had made good relationships with the teaching staff, felt very comfortable in the space, and couldn’t understand why they couldn’t stay here to finish high school. We did a deputation to the Toronto District School Board, and they said yes.
Ariel: How many students do you have right now?
Anthony: We have forty on the rolls. That’s pretty high. It varies every year. When I first started we had fifty. There are a lot of ins and outs. Success is different things for different people; some of them are with us next semester, some are graduating, and we have a bunch of new faces starting with us next semester as well.
Ariel: Tell me about your curriculum. I know from your website that you incorporate LGBTQ content, which I think is fantastic. How do you do that?
Jeffrey: Some courses are really easy. I’ve done an Ancient Queer History course, which is the tough one to do, and then Modern Queer History, which starts with the 1800s in Berlin and goes right through to LGBTQ movements in North America, especially Stonewall in the sixties; the increasing force of the LGBT community; the impact of AIDS; and moving forward into post-AIDS and the emergence of the trans community. So, history, super easy; social sciences, super easy; English, super easy. In English I used to always do a coming out unit, but now I do a storytelling unit and give them the option to write a coming out story. Last year we did children’s stories—that was our focus for our Creative Writing unit—our culminating activity was writing the children’s story you never heard when you were a kid. That was kind of fun. Anthony picked it up in art, and they developed a book cover and illustrations for their stories. In English we pull out queer writers, queer themes from around the world. Sometimes we take a novel like Frankenstein and ask, “How is the monster a queer character? How is he ‘othered’ by society, and how does that tie into our community?” Being abandoned by your parents and all of these things that many queer people have gone through—we try to look at things like that. There’s nothing in the curriculum that says you have to do this work, so the teachers here have always had to go and do all the background research themselves.
Ariel: Luckily there’s so much scholarship out there now.
Jeffrey: Thank God! It wasn’t there fifteen or sixteen years ago. It was a nightmare. And we’ve struggled around trans issues, because that’s really an emerging community. Trans people have always been there throughout history, but to actually find information from a trans point of view, as opposed to an academic or a doctor pathologizing them, that’s been a bit of a struggle. This year in Health For Life, a Grade 11 course I’m teaching right now, we were doing a unit on community health, so I went on to YouTube and tried to find trans people talking about their own experiences dealing with the health care system. That really spoke to our students, because the majority of them right now are questioning gender identity and gender expression, more so than identifying as gay or lesbian.
I think there’s a new type of pigeonholing. It’s just shifted, so “gay and lesbian” as a broad category is passé. Young people may eventually identify that way, but they’re trying on the gender variant hat for now. That’s the beautiful thing about Triangle: you can come in and be gay or lesbian, and you can change your pronoun, you can change your name, you can play around with gender in a very safe space. We see a lot of fluidity here. But there are also definitely youth that are 100% transgender and aren’t interested in trying on other identities. Having a safe space is super important, and if we’d had these kinds of safe spaces when we were younger I think there’d be a lot less mental health issues in our community. People would be a lot more confident in who they are and who they love and all of those things—just happier people.
Ariel: I imagine every student has a different story, but do you find overall that they’re happier when they leave than when they start coming here?
Jeffrey: So many students come into the program and can’t even look us in the eye. They’ve been so let down by the school system. The people who are supposed to support and protect them are the people who allow bullying to happen in schools. They don’t call out the kids who are making homophobic or transphobic slurs. The students hear that there’s this place called Triangle, that it’s supposed to be this LGBTQ safer space, but they still don’t initially trust Anthony and me and the other staff here. The big piece is building that relationship. From our perspective it’s more important to build a relationship that allows the student to feel comfortable and safe than to start right in on academics. Sure, we give them stuff to do, but a lot of them have been disconnected from school for a long time, sometimes years. It’s more important to work on the person first, to build the relationship between teacher and student, and then slowly build those academic skills again. I always think of our student Emilio who couldn’t look us in the eye and was bawling through the whole intake process and had been so beaten down, and is now one of the happiest people I know. So many of our students keep in contact with us. They drop by and say, “This is what I’m doing! I’m so thankful for you guys!” Often you’ll see within six months to a year they’re completely different young people, because they can be here and explore who they are in a safe way.
Ariel: Is it primarily bullying that’s the impetus for kids to come here, or are there larger issues?
Anthony: There’s still bullying, the physical part is still there, but I think it’s more that people aren’t finding community or finding people who understand them. They’re not being respected, whether that’s by the teachers, or by not having gender-neutral washrooms, those kind of things. I think the students who come here are trying to find community, they’re trying to find people like themselves whom they can relate to. And they also need supports. A lot of the time they come in underneath one of those letters in the alphabet, but once they’re here that gets stripped away pretty quickly, and then we deal with all the other issues in their lives. We have two social workers and a child and youth counselor who break down the barriers that are keeping them from focusing on school.
Ariel: There must be all kinds of barriers, but what are some of the more prevalent ones?
Anthony: Homelessness, housing, sometimes it’s family relationships, it could be drugs. A lot of our students are dealing with mental health issues right now, so there’s a lot of mental health supports. If they’re coming out as trans they might need information about resources and next steps. Our social workers are great at getting them on track to being happy in terms of who they are, helping them to find a safe space outside of school so that they can come to this space we call Triangle.
Ariel: You mentioned community. In my experience the larger LGBTQ community can feel very fractured. What do you do to create a sense of community and a sense of belonging—even a sense of commonality—for your students?
Anthony: It sometimes happens organically. It’s also the way we set things up: in the afternoons, we teach the whole school together. It’s like Little House on the Prairie in the basement of the church. We have the whole school in front of us every afternoon, and Jeffrey and I take turns teaching courses. Within that environment, everyone gets to know each other, everyone gets to hear each other’s voices, and we get to talk to the class as a whole. Just because you’re LGBTTI2Q or another letter of the alphabet, it doesn’t mean you necessarily know how to respect some of the other letters. We’re always trying to teach people how to respect each other.
Jeffrey: The intersections of those communities have come up a lot in my Health for Life unit and in philosophy. We’ve talked a lot about intersectionality and accepting and respecting and celebrating differences. The other thing we do in terms of community-building is we have a nutrition program, and it makes a big difference. When you think about how people celebrate community, it’s often around food. We have food in the morning that’s supposed to be breakfast food, but they’re in that kitchen all day long. Then we have volunteer cooks who come in and prepare meals for us at lunchtime. Right now a lot of those volunteers are parents, which is fantastic. Having that hot meal every day, with everybody sitting around and talking over food—having the smaller numbers, doing the work that we do—doing field trips at the beginning of each semester where they have to get out and interact with one another—all helps build that sense of community.
Ariel: When I was at ALPHA we did a lot of community gatherings around food. We also had every afternoon together, the whole school, undivided by age. When I went back years later, that wasn’t the case, and I found it made a difference that you couldn’t see your whole community in front of you every single day.
Anthony: Because we’re such a small school community, we walk into the space, and we know when you’re not here.
Jeffrey: That’s the thing about mainstream schools: they’re somewhat community-based from K-6, then they get somewhat mixed up in 7 and 8, then horrifically mixed up in 9 to 12. At the most challenging point of a student’s life they get thrown in with 2,000+ students, and it’s really hard for them to feel safe, or like they have any sense of community. So I think alternative schools actually are better for young people.
Ariel: Tell me what paths you took to get here.
Anthony: [laughs and turns to Jeffrey] You first! We share these stories with our kids at the beginning of orientation. Everyone introduces themselves and says why they’re here and how they got to Triangle.
Jeffrey: I was the little kid who loved school from Kindergarten to Grade 8. I went with the same people, so I felt like I had a little community and my friends. Sure, some people said homophobic things, but I never felt it was so directed at me that I didn’t want to be in school. I had 100% attendance, I just loved it. Then my mum got remarried and we moved to a new community, and I had to start Grade 9 in a rural high school of about 400 students. It was a small Southern Ontario community. I wasn’t in that school more than five minutes before people started saying, “You’re a fucking fag!” It started with verbal stuff, and then people started to push me and push my things. I got locked in a locker. I got threatened all the time. I was just terrified. My homeroom teacher convinced me to come in and do music with her. She was the only teacher at that school who opened her classroom at the end of the day, from 3:15 until 4:15. We had to wait for that hour, because of extracurricular activities, before the buses left to take us home. That was my terror time. None of the adults would be around—they’d be in the staff room or running activities. Joy Kinsman was the one who went down and opened her music room, and it was like The Island of Misfit Toys. All the little people in the school who didn’t fit in ended up in Joy’s room, and she took care of us. It got to the point where, if she were sick, I would call my grandfather and ask him to come and get me from school because I would be terrified to spend that hour without any adults around. The bullying got so bad that by Grade 11 I was barely attending. Every year my attendance kept going down. I started Grade 12, but I dropped out.
I left home, I lived with a friend for awhile, and then sixteen going on seventeen I moved to Toronto with $700 and a suitcase. I enrolled at Jarvis Collegiate after begging them—they didn’t want to take me because I didn’t have an adult to sign the papers. Eventually after I went back two or three times they said, “Okay, we’ll let you in.” But I didn’t have any money, and I was spending a lot of time trying to find a job, which took me out of school. By November I ended up dropping out of school for the second time, and started working full-time in retail. When I was twenty-four I was working at TD Bank, and I looked around and said, “I don’t think I can do this for another thirty or forty years.” I went to U of T through their pre-University program at Woodsworth College. I went part-time for the first couple of years because I needed to keep a roof over my head. Eventually, at thirty, I got my degree and went into the publishing industry. When the company I worked for closed, I thought, crazy idea, maybe I should become a teacher. I had been doing training for my employer on a software package, and the part I really loved about my job was helping people learn. When I was in elementary school I always paired up with whoever was struggling and helped them. It seemed like a natural fit, but I was terrified. I thought, “I’m going back to that really scary homophobic place called high school!” I was strategic—I was extremely out on my applications to teacher’s college, telling them about volunteering I was doing in the queer community at Triangle Program. I got into teacher’s college, and because I was volunteering here, as soon as a position opened up they said, “Hey, would you come in and do supply teaching?” It turned into an LTO <[Long-Term Occasional], and the following year I was hired as a full-time teacher with Oasis. That’s how I got here.
There’s been a couple of times I’ve thought about leaving. We had bad administration for a few years, and I got to the point where I thought, “We can’t do what we need to do for these youth under this administrator.” But this to me is way beyond a teaching job. This is really a calling. Every one of those kids out there was me. They could be dropped out. They could be struggling. Thirty years ago we were maybe better trained to deal with the world and take care of ourselves—at least I was by my parents. I’m not sure that they have those skills that we had back then. To think of them dropping out—there aren’t a lot of options for young people anymore. It’s not that easy to get a halfway decent retail job. I had a trajectory of jobs where I kept working up the system, but that’s unusual now. For me, staying here is so important so that we can provide a space like this.
Anthony: My story’s not as long. I came from Nova Scotia, where I was born and raised. I probably knew I was gay, but didn’t really deal with it. Being called gay back home meant you had to throw a punch—that was probably the worst thing you could call anyone. I had a good group of friends, I will say that, I was lucky I had a little bit of community, mostly girlfriends, the stereotype. [everyone laughs] I focused on school. My protection was to be academic. Nothing keeps you in the closet more than that. I didn’t deal with my sexuality at all, I just went to school. I went to Dalhousie and got a Physics degree, [then] an Electrical Engineering degree. I actually wanted to be a teacher back then, but my family and friends encouraged me to do something where I’d be more likely to get a job. Jobs are scarce back home, so you’re supposed to pick a profession where you’re likely to find employment. I moved to Toronto to become an engineer because there were no jobs in Halifax.
I worked as an electrical engineer for about ten years. I didn’t really deal with my sexuality until about halfway through that career, when I came out to myself. I enjoyed my job, but I didn’t love my job. It was a lot of work and a lot of time, and I thought, “If I’m going to work this hard, I want to do something I love.” I decided to become a teacher at thirty-five. The situation was right: I’d got a big bonus that year, and it paid for university. I went to Queen’s, I did all my placements in Toronto, and the last one was supposed to be an alternative placement. I thought I should do something in the community, so I Googled “gay high school.” [everyone laughs] This awful website came up, all black with a rainbow on top and a contact number. I called it, and Jeffrey picked up. I said I wanted to do a placement at Triangle, and he accepted me. I came for about four weeks in the late winter, and I continued to volunteer here afterwards. It was still a Grade 9–10 program, and that was the summer they went to the Board for approval to become a full high school. They were looking for a Math-Science teacher. It was competitive, but I was lucky.
Jeffrey: I was calling the principal saying, “You need to hire this guy!” [To Anthony] You got other offers from other boards, and I kept saying, “Don’t take the other offers!”
Anthony: It worked out. I was kind of nervous coming here. I didn’t know much about myself, let alone the community, so I was questioning whether it was the right fit. Teaching this population is totally different from teaching at a mainstream secondary school. I actually talked to the principal at Earl Haig asking whether it was a smart idea to take this as a first teaching gig. She was really great, she said, “All the teachers I’ve brought in from the alternative system have always excelled.” She spoke highly of the alternative school system and the teachers that it produced, so I came here. It was kind of tough at the beginning. I learned a lot from the youth. If I’m not having fun, I know they’re not having fun, so that’s usually my priority. Math is not necessarily the favourite subject of most of these youth, so it’s important to have that fun relationship so they’re willing to focus on some of the math skills. Math is usually the first thing to go—they’d rather read or write than do fractions or calculate slopes.
My coming out experience was really positive. I was thirty, and most people by then are surrounded by the people they want to be surrounded by. Everybody was quite accepting, including my family. It makes me sad when I see all these youth who didn’t have that positive experience. I think it’s my role to give them a spot where they’re not only safe, but they’re happy as well. I’ve thought about leaving before, too—I almost went to Inglenook one year …
Jeffrey: [with mock resentment, looking around] I have nothing to throw at you!
Anthony: I’m not against moving, but even if I did I’d want to work with an at-risk population. Also, in the alternative school system, I’m not stuck with one textbook or schedule. I can be as flexible as I want to teach the population I have at a given moment. It changes every semester. This current group is much younger, a lot more academic, well-developed critical thinking skills. Other years, it’s been more hands-on, not very textbook-y, so you have to switch it up all the time.
Jeffrey: People often say to me, “How can you stay in the same place for that long?” As a teacher at Triangle, every semester is different, every year is different, and you’re constantly learning new things. Each of us make a point every year of teaching a course we haven’t taught before, to build up our repertoire. I always feel like I’m learning and growing, I never feel stagnant as a teacher. I think that’s really important. We’ve had a couple of teachers who’ve gone on into the mainstream, and that’s the biggest thing they struggle with: if it’s May 2nd, you have to be on chapter two of Frankenstein. To me that’s not teaching to the student.
Ariel: You’re not meeting the kids where they are.
Jeffrey: Yeah. The two most important things in education are the relationship you have with your student—that’s number one—and number two is high expectations. But you can’t focus on those priorities if you’re constantly being told, “Be here! Be there!”
Ariel: What kinds of approaches to teaching do you find work best for you?
Jeffrey: We’re really different.
Anthony: We’re opposites. [To Jeffrey] You teach very academic courses, but you do it well. I hated Shakespeare when I was in school, I couldn’t understand it. But he goes out there and teaches it to all these youth with different backgrounds, including kids who struggle in English class, and he’s successful. He has a passion for it, while I hate talking in front of the class. I like discussion and argument. To me that’s more fun.
Jeffrey: It’s good for the students because they get a really good balance between the two of us. My philosophy of education is borrowed from medicine—it’s to do no harm. I think of so many teachers in my own experience as a student who said things that were hurtful. You really have to be open and respectful. My struggle is always around doing what I can for the applied student, because that’s never been me. But I think I’ve gotten much better at it. I’ve come up with strategies to help those students be as successful as possible. It’s been an interesting growth for me. When I first came here I couldn’t raise my voice, because students would get upset. I thought, “Oh my God, what is it going to be like ten years from now when I’m older and have less patience?” But it’s the exact opposite. Now that I’m older I have way more patience with them. When someone gets upset and comes running at me yelling, I sit back and take a really small position so that they can feel powerful. Things like that you learn as you go.
Anthony: Every teacher has to figure out what works for them.
Jeffrey: And you have to reflect upon your own triggers so that you can see them coming. You know enough to back down and say, “Ok, this person’s going to trigger me. I can’t react, I have to calm down.”
Anthony: I can’t yell. I can yell, but I won’t make sense, so I’m not an effective yeller. The only time I yell is if there’s a safety issue. I haven’t yelled at all this year.
Jeffrey: I’ve raised my voice once, but I haven’t yelled at anybody this year. It’s something you can get away with once a year; if you do it more than that, you’re not an effective teacher.
Ariel: They tune you out.
Anthony: It’s an awful way to learn.
Jeffrey: It is!
Anthony: It would be awful for us. It’s not a good way to teach.
Jeffrey: My Grade 11 Physics teacher used to come down the rows of desks and hit my desk with a ruler because I was reading fashion magazines. [raucous laughter]
Anthony: When I’m prepping a course, I think about who’s in the classroom.
Jeffrey: I think that’s really it. Luckily we’ve got donors who’ve given us money, so that if I think my students will like a book that’s just been published, but I haven’t put it in my budget, I can go out and get it. Last year I taught a novel called Bad Music for Ugly Children. It was from a trans character’s perspective. They loved it, and I knew as soon as I read it that I’d add it to the syllabus. That kind of flexibility is really important. Sadly alternative schools don’t always have the funds for it, but we’ve been very fortunate. If you understand the students and what they’re interested in, teaching them is so much easier. You make your plans based on what you know will excite them. Twelfth Night is so much fun to teach here, with all its cross-dressing and gender play.
If you want to look critically at the difference between being a teacher in an alternative program and a mainstream program, it’s the extra hats that we wear. You don’t have to wear those hats in a mainstream school. I don’t think that I would like teaching in a mainstream school, because I would never get to make the connections with students that we get to make here. But it’s a balancing act. Anthony and I spend so much time being a principal, being a vice-principal, being a guidance counselor, being a parent, being a mentor, being a big brother or sister, being all these things for these youth. Often we do it in isolation without a lot of support. The last couple of years we have had much better social work support, which has been fantastic, and child and youth counselors. But when the shit hits the fan, Anthony and I are responsible for dealing with it. It does sometimes seem like Degrassi, but that’s what Anthony and I have to deal with, and it can take a real emotional toll. Luckily the students give it back to us in so many other ways. Both of us are so tired we can barely hold up our heads right now, but I’ll go away for winter break and I’ll miss all of them, and I’ll want to come back here. They give us so much energy. Right now they’re taking it from me, but I don’t blame them, I blame the system and the way it’s set up—schools don’t really get the kind of support they need. Students who are struggling don’t get a better teacher-student ratio. The Ministry of Education has set up a funding formula that doesn’t support education and doesn’t support difference. They talk equity, but if they really, truly believed in it they wouldn’t have a one-size-fits-all funding formula. All of those things are really frustrating, and people need to realize that. It’s the killer for teachers and staff who are now in the system.
Ariel: Everybody says it’s at least twice as much work.
Anthony: At the same time, if something happens, if it’s not too serious, we make the call in terms of what’s best for the community.
Jeffrey: Because we really know them, where the principal doesn’t. If anything I would have more frontline staff in the program. Our social workers are each here a half day. I would make it a point five. There should be somebody here every day for at least a half day for our youth because of all the issues they struggle with. For forty youth, actually, it would be better if we had three-and-a-half or four teachers. I’m often amazed at what we’re able to do with just the two of us. Luckily our principal recognizes that we need another staff person here, so I know he’s working very hard to get a third teacher. Of course we’re trying to be very strategic around it because we don’t want someone unsuitable bumped into Triangle. They’ve got to be part of our community, they’ve got to be the right fit.
Anthony: It can’t be another white male, either.
Ariel: I’m glad you brought that up.
Jeffrey: Someone who’s female-identified. All of our other staff is female, but we really need someone here who’s a woman.
Ariel: What about incorporating adult role models from specific communities for students of colour?
Jeffrey: It’s not always possible, and it’s a critique we’ve gotten from students. It’s hard, because most of the people out in the community doing work are white people. Most of the facilitators we bring in are women. Luckily some of the parents who volunteer right now are people of colour, so we at least have their presence in the classroom. I try to go out of my way to find voices from the nontraditional canon when I teach English. In philosophy we look not just at Greek or European philosophers. It’s super important. It’s a bigger systemic piece we need to change: to make sure people with a wide variety of identities can get through the education system and take on those roles.
Anthony: We try not to focus just on queer issues, but to look at other social justice issues as well. I teach about environmentalism. They get queered out. [Ariel laughs] They do. We’ve had years when they’ve said, “That’s a lot. Can’t we do something else?”
Jeffrey: Social justice, race oppression, those kinds of issues.
Anthony: I’m being certified next year in First Nations-Métis-Inuit Studies. It’s a little bit out of my field, but I’m looking forward to it.
Jeffrey: If you’re looking at alternative education, the Ministry of Education in Ottawa really needs to know more about it, because Toronto is one of the few places that truly has alternative education. When you go to other boards they think it means providing education for people who are over twenty-one, or section programs for kids who are there because of behavioural issues.
Anthony: There’s a stigma around it.
Jeffrey: We get some weird reactions to Triangle. They say it’s segregation education. First of all, do you know what segregation even means? They’re just here for the school day. The rest of the time they have to deal with the real world. This is their unicorns and rainbows.