Each week, Zach Rider shows up with his goofy, sarcastic personality as the loving educator that every LGBTQ child deserves.
In high school, I volunteered at my elementary school, and I was going to a summer camp at the time. Right after high school, I started working at the summer camp, and I really loved it. I’m not really an outdoorsy gay, but that was my opportunity to work with kids. To a lot of people, that would be a living hell spending a week living in a cabin with ten 4th-grade children, but I loved it every single week. I got to do things I never would have done; I got to drive a houseboat!
I decided that I wanted to study elementary education, and my draw to that was that I had a really bad middle school and elementary school experience. I loved the people, but I didn’t like the schooling system. This was in small-town Wisconsin with a population of 5,000 people. Middle school was when I knew I was gay, and there were multiple people who told me that it was not okay – not to me, but in general. I didn’t come out until really late in life because there were a lot of small town people who made it hard. In my 20s, I really wanted to be an out and proud person who middle school and high school students got to see in their life that they could look up to. Even if I wasn’t specifically saying that I was gay all the time, being myself in front of middle school students was something I really wanted to do. I wanted to be the person that I needed in middle school.
And how long have you worked at the schools? What kind of programming do you do?
I’ve been doing after school programming for the past four years, and now I’ll now be working with Lutheran Social Service helping run camps that works with disaster relief. Most Wednesday nights from 4-8PM I’ve been running programs.
I worked at a huge church, and it’s a big community center with over 200 middle school students. They have guides, and I’d be in front of the large group leading games and activities before they do check in with their small groups.
What is it like working with the younger kids?
In general, younger kids are much more excitable. Middle schoolers are at that age where they think it’s really cool to not be excited. They’re at that age where they’re really excited about childish things, but they won’t want to show that they are. Yesterday, we did a scavenger hunt around the building, and half the kids were super giddy about it and half looked like they didn’t want to be there. And I’m like, “Ugh, who cares?” I would do a scavenger hunt as a 28-year old now. Get over it – you’ll be fine!
I love being stupid, and elementary kids love it. I make a lot of dad jokes. One time at a camp, I told a group of 4th graders that we were ninjas, and that no one could see us. So we just ran around outside looking like fools. And I said, “Don’t worry – no one can see us.” They knew that people could see us, but it didn’t matter. That’s why I decided to study elementary education.
I’m now working with kids in a more indirect way, in part because the school system is so hard. Meeting parents was difficult because there were so many different layers. Parents – bless your heart, I’m not a parent – but there were parents who didn’t want to seek different education for their kids who knew they were behind. There were parents who would tell you that you were doing things wrong. People were breathing over my shoulder, and it was driving me crazy.
Dealing with the kids’ energy is draining, and by the end of every day, I was exhausted. I could hardly do it when I was 23; I can’t imagine doing it now!
And how does that compare to middle schoolers? What are the best and worst parts of working with them?
The sass! I’m a very sassy individual, so I love that I can give it and they can give it back. In elementary school, my sass is often lost on them, so it comes off as mean. Middle schoolers love a sassy gay person. With middle schoolers, it can be easier to be yourself.
Speaking of being yourself… Attitudes towards queer people have changed drastically in the past several years. How has that affected your interactions with the students and others in the schools?
When I was student teaching, I was still in the closet to most. When I worked in a little town in Wisconsin, it came up, but it wasn’t a big deal. Since then, I’ve come out in every job interview. If it’s a problem for them, I can’t work there. “You don’t have to tell me this is why you aren’t going to hire me, but if it’s an issue, then don’t hire me.” It doesn’t come up in me talking about it, but I’ve talked about relationships in front of them in the past, and my process of coming out. It was one of the hardest – and greatest – things I’ve ever done. I’ve told all the kids I’m working with, and all the parents, and it’s never been an issue. I tell everyone because my supervisor needs to have my back.
I love that I can be the person I needed in middle school. If I would’ve had a queer teacher in middle school, it would’ve made a world of difference to me. I was so down, and tried for so long not to be gay. If I would’ve had happy, adult queer people in my life, it would’ve helped so much. I get to be that authentic person for these students, and to show them that, no matter what, they’re loved by a lot of people – even if they don’t feel that all the time.
Josh Elmore (he/him), singer and member of our small ensemble OutLoud!, created Humans of TCGMC in 2018. He graduated from Carleton College with a B.A. in Linguistics and has since worked in sales, higher education, and, most recently, as a bilingual insurance agent (Spanish). Endlessly curious, he has dabbled in improv theater, stand-up comedy, sword fighting, the cello, and modeling for fantasy-themed photo shoots.