One woman's story: An English teacher learns to speak

by Tom Boswell

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Kristen Ostendorf worked at Totino-Grace High School in St. Paul, Minn., for 18 years. She was an English teacher, campus minister and coach, and spent much of her time traveling with students on immersion programs, both in the U.S. and overseas.

"I love teaching and I love bringing students to that social justice world," Ostendorf says. But, like many others this reporter met at the CTA conference, she found that social justice is sometimes lacking in our Catholic institutions.

Bill Hudson, the president of Totino-Grace, was forced to resign on July 1, 2013, when he told school authorities that he was in a committed same-sex relationship.  The school, in the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese, is associated with the Lasallian Christian Brothers.

In August, Ostendorf returned to school for a week of planning and training sessions just prior to the start of classes. She was scheduled to lead a training session.

"I was preparing to speak to the staff, and some people knew I was gay, and maybe some students did, and I thought, how on earth do I go back to school and, by my presence, condone what happened to Bill Hudson," she said. "I didn't know what was going to come out of my mouth but, in the end, I realized that if I said nothing I would be choosing to silence myself." She came out.

"This summer was really hard for me," she said to her colleagues. "I'm here today to tell you I hope we can bring our full, authentic selves to our job, to our work." The response was predictable: some were silent, a few of her friends started to cry, administrators stared at the floor, and one man left in an angry huff.

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"I went home and waited for the other shoe to drop," she recalled. She was called to a meeting the next day with the former principal -- now the president -- and other administrators.

"They asked if I was interested in resigning and I said 'No. I know my days of working for the Church are over. That ship has sailed. But I'm not going to resign because I'm not sorry and I didn't do anything wrong.' "

She said the president called her later the same day and said: "I failed to mention in our meeting that, no matter your decision on whether to resign or not, this is your last day associated with Totino-Grace High School." School started the next week without Ostendorf. School administrators never did use the words "fire" or "termination" in their dealings with her, she claims.

"All of a sudden, I was gone. My desk was empty. But nobody could say anything. I thought that was unfair, unfair to the community, unfair to the students mainly."

When the story eventually came out in the media, Ostendorf says, there were a lot of repercussions including outraged parents (on both sides of the issue), donors who disassociated themselves from the school, and teachers who left.

When asked if she thinks there is still a place for her in a Catholic institution, Ostendorf replied: "I do. Absolutely. I can't imagine where it is, given the current climate and culture of the Church. But it's my Church too." She is now teaching at a public school.

"I feel like the Church, from my very earliest days, taught me not to speak some things," she said, "but I think people are starting to speak out, starting to say: 'No, that's not okay.' "

"I think that learned, taught silence, the expectation that we don't challenge, I think that's a heavy, heavy blanket, and it takes a lot of coaxing to get people to crawl out from under it. It takes all of us to continue to tell our stories."

[Tom Boswell is a freelance journalist, photographer and poet living near Madison, Wis.]

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