Myndi Hardgrave, Hanford West High School
Teacher helps students find safe space through Gay-Straight Alliance
When English teacher Myndi Hardgrave was asked by a couple of students to sponsor a Gay-Straight Alliance club at Hanford West High School 14 years ago, it took a weekend of soul-searching and months of battles in the school, community and the media.
“I’ll never forget this. They came on a Friday afternoon after school. I said ‘Guys, I have to think about this.’ I was almost having a panic attack. I knew I would have to come out and that would be the assumption anyway. And I didn’t know if I was ready for that,” said Hardgrave, who has been a CalSTRS member for 25 years.
On the drive home, she debated with herself. “Is it worth it? This is scary. But LGBT kids and their friends need a safe place to gather and be accepted. I never had this help.”
Over the weekend, Hardgrave decided it was “high time someone came out and did something on this campus. We’re acting like these kids don’t exist, and they do, and they need somewhere to go where people understand and support them.”
Ultimately, Hardgrave took on the challenge and agreed to be the adviser for the GSA. The next step: talking to the administration. “I told them, ‘I’m giving you a heads-up. I’m not asking for permission. When we do this, it’s going to explode. There will be teacher and student backlash.’ All these men looked at me and said, ‘Don’t worry about it. You do it.’”
Starting a GSA did “blow up in every way I expected it would.” The local newspaper was flooded with letters to the editor in opposition to the club and journalists converged on the high school. Parents and staff members came to GSA meetings to see what the group was talking about. Hardgrave even received a death threat.
For about three months, the GSA was big news. “It died down and people went on with their lives when they realized nothing they were going to do or say was going to change the creation of the club.”
During the next couple of years, as other schools in the region started their own GSA clubs, Hanford’s club eventually become a non-news item.
Coming out at school
Coming out was difficult for Hardgrave. “I came out to the staff before we officially started the club. I was a nervous wreck. I told them I was supporting this club for one reason: When I was their age, I needed this and nobody was there. This wasn’t about me, but I wish someone had done this for me. You don’t have to support it and you don’t have to like it, but we do need to know that these kids need this, and they need their space.”
Why did you become a teacher?
“I kind of ran from the idea for a while. My parents were both teachers and I have a grandmother who was a teacher,” she said. “I saw the work they did after school and on the weekends and for not that great of pay, so I thought, ‘I want to go do something else.’ But after my first year of college, I just gravitated to teaching and never regretted this decision. This is the right fit for me.”
Who inspired you as a teacher?
Besides her parents? Two English teachers inspired Hardgrave in high school. “I loved literature anyway, but it was how they made their connections with their kids in real ways, and at the same time found creative ways to teach literature.”
Both of Hardgrave’s favorite teachers valued making connections with students. “I took that to heart as a teacher myself. I modeled what I did as a teacher by being a real person talking about real things and talking about literature at the same time. And trying to connect first with the students and teach second,” Hardgrave said. “I teach them about owning failure, mistakes and frustration. At the same time, caring about their lives and what they’re going through.”
Hardgrave also says she’s animated in the classroom, though that might not work for everyone. “You have to know your personality and play to your strengths. Mine is high-energy lessons and that keeps kids entertained and engaged. I tell my students I hate to be bored and you hate to be bored and I’m going to do my best to not be boring.”
What’s one thing you’re proud of as a teacher?
The one thing Hardgrave is proud of, “without a doubt,” is helping launch the GSA. “That will stand out the rest of my career as ‘fight that battle so other people won’t have to fight that battle.’”
Leadership at school and in the union
Hardgrave, who teaches six senior English classes, is the English Curriculum Facilitator and Partnership Academy Lead Teacher. She says facilitator is just a fancy way of saying she’s the department chair and curriculum expert.
For the last several years, the focus on high school senior English throughout the state has been expository reading and writing curriculum, driven by the California State University system. Instead of teaching novels, this expository-information text course helps seniors transition into college readiness. “There was a disconnect in high-school-based literature and what students needed to do at college,” Hardgrave said.
Over the last 20 years, Hardgrave has held leadership roles in the California Teachers Association at the local, county and state levels. However, she’s taking a hiatus from union work because she and her wife are fostering children and trying to adopt.
Starting a family
Hardgrave and her wife Arriana have been foster parents for a year and a half. They currently have an infant with hopes to adopt him. They primarily wanted to foster children under 2 years old, but a month after they got their foster license, the Hardgraves were approached about fostering a transgender teen. “We got him through high school and gave him a place to transition (gender) and be awesome.”
The process has had its heart-wrenching moments. “We had a preemie baby we brought home. We had her for three weeks. We fell in love,” Hardgrave said. But then the baby was placed with a family member who eventually came forward. “Before that, we were told she had absolutely no one. In the NICU, nobody visited her. It was devastating. We almost stopped fostering at that point.”
Being a foster parent also changed her relationship with students who are in the foster care system. “It opens some interesting conversations and doors I didn’t have before,” Hardgrave said.
What’s one fun thing about you?
“I’m a nerd. I love Star Wars and Harry Potter. I was one of those people who showed up to the book store and sat in there for hours and hours to be there when the seventh Harry Potter book came out. I was meant to be an English teacher. I’m a book nerd for sure.”
Plans for retirement?
Retirement is still a long time off, but Hardgrave says she will probably substitute teach. She also would like to do education consulting or perhaps teach at a community college part time. “Whatever I do will have something to do with supporting LGBT kids in school,” she said.
One dream is to open an LGBT-friendly summer camp in the Central Valley. She already has experience, working for 10 summers at a Christian camp as a worker, counselor and finally as a director. “I love the camping ministry,” Hardgrave said.
Teacher Talk is a series of profiles on California teachers and other educators. To be considered for a future profile, please email Communications@CalSTRS.com, with Teacher Talk in the subject line.