A Phantom Guide
Updated: Mar 17, 2019
When I was a senior in high school, my only gay teacher was murdered.
The tragedy of his murder is not mine to own - it belongs to his family and the friends who loved him like family, the people who poured their hearts into making him feel loved and allowed him to be the incredible person he was. But, like a wave, tragedy has a way of washing over everything in its path. I was a closeted gay kid who looked up to Leroy Gilkey as a successful, outspoken, universally adored gay man, and I was not immune from drowning in the shock of his loss.
I don’t want to dwell on how he died, but I do think the context is important in this case because some of the details have stuck with me in the 7 years since it happened. He was shot and killed by his own father after a dispute about putting his mother in hospice care. Two of his aunts were also killed, before his father turned the gun on himself.
According to his brother, who survived the incident, Leroy Gilkey was hiding behind him when he was shot. His brother was spared. Why? Because he had children. To his own father, Leroy’s life wasn’t worth living because he was a single man. His father was logical and coherent enough in this moment to explain why he was killing Leroy and not his brother, and that is the fact that chills me to this day. In a way, Leroy was punished for being who he was.
The shocking, violent nature of his murder plunged our school and our community into a grief that lasted for weeks and months after the initial impact. As I mentioned, Leroy Gilkey (or Señor, as he was more commonly known by his students) was universally adored at our school, by both students and teachers alike. He taught spanish, and our program was set up in such a way that many of us had him as a teacher twice - both freshman and junior years.
While he never said it outright (because why should he have?), Señor Gilkey was one of those people everyone knew was gay. He didn’t hide it - he lived loud and proud, despite not officially "coming out" to his students or even his family. And everyone loved him: his laugh, his jokes, his fun and engaging style of teaching, and most of all, his kindness.
Señor Gilkey was the biggest role model I had in high school. Up to that point, I had never had a close relationship with someone who was established and successful as a gay man. I had encountered them from time to time, but I had never been close enough to them to understand the strength it took to live so bravely and still be successful. I looked forward to his class every single day for those two years I had him as a teacher - not only because he made learning fun, but because he showed me who I could become.
When I was a junior, I decided to run for the position of Senior Class Vice President for the next year. I did this for my resume, of course, but I also did it because I knew that Señor Gilkey was one of the two faculty advisors for the senior class officers. I wanted another year of learning from him and working with him, this time in a slightly different and more personal capacity. As a closeted gay kid, I was desperate for a connection with someone who could show me the way, even if he didn’t know it.
One afternoon, as we closed our tattered school copies of Don Quixote and packed up to move on to our next class, I approached Señor and told him I wanted to run for VP of the senior class. I expected him to be delighted, but instead he said this: “You know this isn’t a popularity contest. You need to be willing to work hard, too.”
Those words stuck with me, because it made me realize that he knew me better than he let on. There was a part of me that did want to see if I could win a popularity contest, and he saw right through that. He was setting me up for success the only way he knew how: by being honest.
Fortunately, I won the election and got the chance to work with Señor for one final year before graduating. Then I ruined everything.
The single biggest regret of my high school career is how much I disappointed Señor on the night before the first day of school my senior year. It was a tradition at our school for the four senior class officers to give a speech to the entire school at an assembly on the morning of the first day of school. Each of us was assigned a class of students to address. As VP, I got the juniors.
Despite constant reminders from Señor and Ms. Simpson (the other senior class advisor and Señor’s best friend) throughout the summer, I continued to put off writing my speech. The day it was due, I sent a quickly assembled paragraph to both of them and considered my duties complete, despite knowing that it wasn’t even close to living up to the standards I knew I could hit.
That night, the night before the first day of school, I went to the school with a large group of my classmates to “paint the rock” - which is exactly what it sounds like. It was tradition for the new seniors to spray paint the big rock in front of our school before the first day each year with some slogan about how great their class was. We decided, however, to take it to the next level by also writing slogans and designs in sidewalk chalk all over the walkways in front of the school.
Somehow, the word of our chalking spread to faculty. They grudgingly allowed the painting of the rock, but extending our antics to sidewalk chalk was considered defacing school property. Some staff members showed up at the school to tell us all off and send us home. As I was standing on the lawn, surrounded by the small chaos of wily kids getting wrist slaps, I got a call from Señor Gilkey.
I don’t remember the exact words of our conversation, but the sentiment was this: disappointment. He couldn’t believe I was one of the students chalking the school, since I was supposed to be a leader. And he especially couldn’t believe I was doing this when I had handed in such a terrible speech for the next morning. I will never forget the feeling of letting down the one person I most wanted to impress, and knowing that I couldn't even remotely begin to defend myself.
To this day, I’m not sure what made me knowingly let everyone down that night. Maybe I wanted to feel what it was like, for once, to be less than perfect when it came to school. To know what it felt like to half-ass something. Maybe I wanted to test the limits of my own rebellion, no matter how subtle. Or maybe I was simply overwhelmed and allowed myself to crack, just a bit.
Regardless of why, I strained my relationship with Señor that night and a few months later he was dead.
After my lapse of judgment with that situation, I took my position very seriously and worked to restore my reputation in his eyes, but I don’t think he ever looked at me the same way. And I was robbed of the chance to convince him that I was the person he once thought I was.
I think that’s why his death hit me so hard. I was mourning him and the wonderful person he was, but I was also mourning the loss of my biggest role model and the absence of a chance to restore my relationship with him to the point where it used to be, to the place I thought it deserved to be. He died thinking I was good, maybe, but not great - and that still haunts me, to this day.
At our graduation ceremony a few months after he died, they left an empty chair on the stage where Señor would have been sitting. I helped to orchestrate a tribute to Señor that day. We got roses for every graduating senior and passed them out before the ceremony. As each of us walked across the stage, we dropped a rose onto his empty chair. Each rose was a thank you, an I miss you, a tribute to the memory of a great man who helped to shape each of us into the people we were as we crossed that stage.
I hope that, wherever he is, Señor smiled down on that pile of roses and knew he was loved. I hope he knew that each rose represented just a tiny piece of the massive impact he left on this world - an impact that is still felt, to this day. In the years since he died, I’ve worked hard to show Señor that I can be the person he saw that I could be.
Wherever he is, I hope he’s proud of who we’ve all become.
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