Horatio Alger meets Dorothy Allison in this debut memoir about growing up and coming out.
The author’s father, a fundamentalist minister, died during the boy’s eighth birthday party. The family had always been dirt-poor, and now his mother had to find a way to scrape by on her own. Jennings loved reading, and whenever life in his North Carolina trailer park got him down, he escaped into books. But school was a trial: He was chubby, too smart for his own good—and attracted to other boys. A scholarship to Harvard got him out of the rural South into classrooms and dorms where it was okay to be brainy and, at least in the more progressive corners of Cambridge, okay to be gay. But Jennings’s awakening didn’t end in Harvard Square. The most affecting passages here describe his experiences teaching at elite private schools in New England. His students adored him, but administrators got nervous when Jennings wanted to speak publicly about his sexual orientation. This subtle but unequivocal discrimination eventually led him to found the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which works to make schools safe for gay students. Jennings describes the evangelical, racist South in which he grew up, without a trace of condescension. His mother emerges as a heroic, working-class feminist: fighting to keep food on the table, she eventually became the first woman in the Winston-Salem area to break through the glass ceiling at McDonald’s and be promoted to manager. When Jennings came out to her, she was initially perplexed and upset. But seeing that her diffidence was driving a wedge between them, she founded a gay parents’ support group. This memoir, which ends with Jennings delivering the eulogy at his mom’s funeral, would make any mother proud.
Generous and illuminating.