Over her 20 year career April van Buren has worked in several schools teaching English, journalism, and technology courses as well as serving as a librarian. No matter her role at a school, she has had a primary focus—providing students with as many opportunities as possible for growth and success. Outside of class, she sponsors the Newspaper & Photography and Digital Art clubs. She has also been working with the Madison School District to develop new courses and explore the possibility of a journalism sequence through the district’s Personalized Pathways program. She says, however, that at the end of the day, she is not trying to grow journalists. She wants her students to show up for class to gain confidence in their writing and communication skills.
Outside of school, she has also served on the boards of several education- and journalism-related organizations. Her commitment to journalism education outside of her teaching duties led to a Pioneer Award from the National Scholastic Press Association in October (the highest honor the organization awards to journalism educators). Shortly after receiving that award, the yearbook she oversees, Tower Tales, was awarded a First Place designation by the Kettle Moraine Press Association. When we reached out to her for an interview about her awards, she saw it as an opportunity to serve her students and community through representation by sharing who she is.
Who is She?
April describes growing up as being fairly typical to her demographic (aside from a freak car accident senior year that left her in a neck brace for the school dance à la Regina George). She was never disowned or kicked out of the house. Her parents are retired teachers (kindergarten and orchestra) who are still married and live in a midsized Missouri town. She describes not practicing her violin and dropping orchestra as the height of her childhood rebellion, but maybe music just wasn’t for her.
“I remember when I was five, my dad had me taking piano lessons and the teacher said, ‘Maybe wait a few years and try again.’ In other words, she’s terrible, and I don’t think she’s teachable. Ballet and piano—I have had similar commentary from the instructors, like, ‘Just wait a couple of years.’ I never found my way back to either (and I am not upset about it), but as an adult, I love being around music and musicians,” she said.
“I can’t read music and don’t know how to play an instrument. In college, my dad gave me an instrument so I could start my all-girl punk band after going to a show in someone’s basement. I was like, I can totally do that. Let’s go,” she said. “Of course, I had the concept and marketing scheme ready to go, but I also couldn’t play an instrument, so I was going to learn one or two chords. I didn’t get there. It is a damn shame because Tamponderosa would have been an amazing all girl band.”
A late bloomer
Coming out happens differently for all of us. April describes herself as a late bloomer in general. She jokes that everyone knew she was gay, but nobody told her (except for a couple of bullies). When she became interested in dating at 15, she had a feeling that she might be attracted to people of various genders, but it was the mid-90s, and no one at her school was out (in fact, many of her friends would not even come out in college). She also recalls her Girl Scout camp friends who were gay being a certian type of stereotype that she didn’t see herself in.
There wasn’t any particular person she was avoiding dating out of fear, and doing what was expected came easier. “It was like there is this book that I am interested in reading, but I am not ready to read it, so I’m just going to put it on the shelf. And I honestly didn’t think about it,” she said. She continued, “I mean, you can be queer without having acted on it, but I just really didn’t get it—and I have always felt very self-aware and very confident, except for this one huge part of my self-identity that I just didn’t get.” At 19, she met her husband and left questions about her sexuality on the shelf to gather dust.
I’m a homosexual
April protests that she doesn’t like the “Roller Derby Made Me Gay” trope but also admits that there is something to be said for an environment where you are surrounded by strong, intelligent, confident women. Ultimately, it was while sharing that women’s space that she began to examine her own sexuality more closely and come to terms with how embracing it would change her life.
“I remember being on the Beltline driving to roller derby practice and saying out loud to myself in the car, ‘I’m gay,’ and crying a little bit… Because that is a huge thing to go from being a straight, married woman in a fairly conservative family to like: Oh, no. I am going to do this,” she said. “I am going to change who I thought I am and what I thought my life was going to look like and how I had planned out my future.”
While she was exploring her metaphorical closet, April’s new principal was considering moving April’s office into an actual closet because the librarian’s office had been “previously underutilized.” She didn’t want to tell her new boss ‘no,’ so she considered the option, but in the end found the parallel to be deeply depressing. She was nervous about what being out would mean professionally.
“I wasn’t worried about how the kids would respond (if anything I felt guilty for not being out sooner, because I do think representation matters),” she said. “Was I hiding, or was I just trying to get my feet under me and figure out who I am? How does being queer impact my identity or change it or make it full? Do I get a haircut? Do I need to have an asymmetrical haircut? An undercut? Well, I did for like a decade because I liked it, and it looked good on me. But then I was like, ‘I’m in my 40’s. I don’t want to look like Skrillex the librarian anymore.’”
Flying under the gaydar
Of her personal presentation April said, “I don’t really like to call myself fem. I am just a tomboy who is trying to look professional at school.” When starting out in her career, her mother helped her to put together a professional wardrobe that consisted mostly of practical items from Kohl’s department store clearance. In her personal life, she prefers a louder and more playful aesthetic, but she started out teaching at a school with rigid expectations about women’s clothing and grooming.
Even though she has experienced erasure herself, stereotypes about what being gay looks like are so prevalent that they become internalized. She is sometimes initially surprised to find out which students are in same-gender relationships, but she still hopes to offer to those students an opportunity to see a queer adult who reflects their own experience. “I’m not trying to be the fem mascot,” she said. “I’m just trying to be me, but I’m hoping that me being me can show kids that there are lots of ways to be queer and to identify as female. There are lots of ways to hold all of these identities. I am just one of them, and maybe I’m just adding one more example of something that they can see themselves in.”
While April has been recognized recently as an exceptional educator, she doesn’t have any desire to sit in the spotlight (unless, of course, it is to the benefit of her students). She often encourages them to push past discomfort until challenging tasks become routine. Now, she is taking her own advice. She said, “I don’t need my story to be amplified necessarily, but if you are going to interview me, then maybe I can talk about representation, and maybe I can talk about safe spaces, and maybe I can talk about how journalism really does something special for kids that regular English classes just can’t do. I am going to force myself to be uncomfortable.”
Later she joked, “You can have a normal, boring life just like me with your mom’s dresses from Kohl’s and not knowing how to do your winged eyeliner!” The tone was light, but the gravity of the comment is undeniable. In a community where we don’t all make it, and many scrape to get by, we come out and live our lives in defiance of oppressive powers. Throughout our conversation, we touched repeatedly on the idea of queer people being allowed to live authentic, ordinary, and joyful lives. April seems determined to do just that when she says, smiling, “There are times I think, ‘I can’t believe that this is my life,’ and not in a bad way,” she said. “I never would have pictured it this way, and I am so happy.”