Westwood High School recently hosted a number of alumni on an LGBTQ panel as part of its Courageous Conversations program, through which students and staff work together to identify topics that should be discussed.
Spanish teacher Anne-Marie Sklarwitz organized the event, bringing together six alums who graduated from 1975 to 2017. Each spoke about their experiences as an LGBTQ student during their time at WHS and beyond.
“These issues can be difficult to talk about, but they can help us move forward together to strengthen our community,” said Sklarwitz.
Brett Iarrobino just graduated in 2017, but was eager to return to WHS to participate in the event.
“I thought it was important for me to come back and share my experience,” he said. “I want to make an impact.”
Iarrobino thinks if a program like this had happened during his time as a student, things might have been easier for him and he might have made the decision to come out earlier than his senior year.
That echoes the hopes Sklarwitz had for the program: to create an opportunity for the community to both look inward and outward.
“One of our goals was for people to be both mirrors and windows,” she explained. “We want people to see themselves and see those different from them.”
The panelists shared stories about their experiences at school and in the outside world. Sklarwitz said it gave students an opportunity to see beyond what can sometimes be a more homogeneous community in their daily lives.
The alumni struck what Sklarwitz called “a very helpful tone,” and added that no single story represents what it’s like to be an LGBTQ teen.
“It’s not the trite ‘it gets better’ storyline all the time. It gets better when you hold on, work on it, and surround yourself with positive people,” she said.
Sklarwitz hoped all the students, regardless of sexual orientation, would take certain lessons from the discussion.
“I wanted students to see that the world is bigger than we sometimes realize and that we can all learn from people who are different than us,” she said. “I also wanted them to realize that, while these alums have a few things in common, they have many things about them that make them unique.”
Students seemed to confirm the program worked the way Sklarwitz intended.
“The alums have sparked hope for me as a member of the LGBTQ+ community here at WHS. I hope they come again so they can spread their message of hope and acceptance. The fight against ignorance is not over, but their presence here makes the future bright,” said a current senior who chose not to be named.
“As a straight ally, I found this panel to be very eye-opening. It was interesting to hear how members of the LGBTQ community experienced high school in different ways,” said another student. “It was an informative and engaging way to educate students on the journey of LGBTQ individuals.”
She credited the alumni with much of the success of the program for being willing to come back to campus and share their stories so openly.
“These adults were brave to come in. They were open and honest. They were hopeful,” she said.
For Iarrobino, the triumph of the event goes beyond the actual panel and discussion that occurred. The fact that the school even thought to host the program is gratifying for him.
“The administration is looking inward. Westwood is ready to roll up its sleeves and do progressive and forward-looking work. I feel really proud about that.”
Both Sklarwitz and Iarrobino hope and expect that this will become an annual event.
“I want to keep listening to student feedback about what they want and what they need,” Sklarwitz said. “I want to help support them in making this community a great place for all families to live, grow, learn, and work.”
“It was a really rewarding experience,” Iarrobino added. “As long as they’ll have me, I’ll find a way to come back.”