Gay Catholic School Teacher Fired, Students Revolt

Reuters/David Ryder

Reuters/David Ryder

By Ryan Pfeffer, Broward Palm Beach

Yesterday afternoon, I heard a story about a group of students at Eastside Catholic School in Sammamish, Washington. They staged a sit-in to protest the forced resignation of their gay vice principal. This was due to his recent marriage to another man. Because the high school is a private Catholic one, this marriage had violated his contract. In protest of the decision, hundreds of students refused to go to class.

Later, I learned that the vice principal at the center of the controversy is Mark Zmuda, a former high school teacher of mine from Cardinal Gibbons High School in Fort Lauderdale.

Zmuda reportedly married Dana Jergens last July, seven months after gay marriage became legal in Washington. School officials said that he had violated his contract and that the decision to force his resignation was made by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle.

In this video that was apparently shot from a student’s cell phone, Zmuda accepted his fate and addressed students, telling them: “I love each and every one of you, Yes, I am gay. Yes, I did get married this past summer, and I know it is against the Catholic teaching. I think a lot of you guys are raised in a generation that is more open and accepting to things that are legal now in the state of Washington… I hope that no matter what happens to me and to the school that all of you guys will seek a career and work very hard, find the love of your life, and one day get married as well.”

He told them, “Do your best,” and one student yelled, “We’re not gonna do it without you!” leading to applause from the room full of students.

A news report from Washington said the student protest spread to other area schools. In the wake of the resignation, students started a petition at Change.org, asking that the Catholic Church change its stance on gay marriage. As of this morning, more than 9,000 people had signed it.

In a story that I’m sure will be used as a platform for endless, circular political and religious debates, I think there’s really only one thing people need to know: What kind of teacher Mark Zmuda was.

If you were late to Mr. Zmuda’s class, you’d have to do one pushup for every second after the bell rang. Sometimes he’d get on the ground and do them with you.

The back wall of his classroom was covered with pictures of his students. You had to bring in a picture of yourself during the first week of class or else you lost points. The whole process seemed dumb and burdensome until you saw the finished product and for a second felt like part of something.

Mr. Zmuda went to Virginia Tech, and after the shooting there happened, he held fundraisers and got the whole school to sign a big VT banner he sent over to their campus.

We used to have assemblies where students would dress up as teachers and make fun of them. The teachers would do the same to students. I can’t remember one of these assemblies where Mr. Zmuda wasn’t the ringleader.

He was a coach on the swim team, and you saw his face at just about every game, no matter the sport.

He was my geometry teacher. I’m not going to pretend like he was one of those teachers who changed my life. I was a quiet kid in high school, and due to my own apathy, I never really had one of those teachers. But I will say with absolute certainty that he was a reallygood teacher.

I hate math. I can’t tell time, because when I finally count the minutes, the big hand has moved. The whole process is like trying to fill up a bucket with a hole in the bottom. Whenever I have to calculate a tip, I panic and leave way too much just to be safe. But I passed Mr. Zmuda’s class. I didn’t just pass; I got A’s on most of the tests. I wasn’t cheating or taking the kinds of drugs that make math fun either. Mr. Zmuda was just good at what he did.

The point I’m trying to make here is that Mr. Zmuda cared. A lot.

And if you’re reading this, that means you’ve had at least some schooling, and you know how often just the opposite can happen. Everyone has had the alcoholic history teacher who just plays episodes of The Magic School Bus every day, despite the fact that the goddamned bus never went anywhere near the American Revolution.

There’s a reason I can’t scroll an inch down my Facebook newsfeed without seeing a status from a former classmate crying out in defense of Mr. Zmuda. It’s because he made an impact.

If Mr. Zmuda were a lawyer, there would be a lot of criminals walking free. If he were a zookeeper, there would be a troop of gorillas out there, happy and fat.

But he wasn’t any of those things. He was a teacher. And that’s why, at this very moment, there are hundreds of genuinely distraught students sitting in a cafeteria, feeling helpless and sad because one of their favorite teachers has been taken from them.

Did Mark Zmuda know the risks that marrying a man would pose to his career? Probably. Is the school legally within its rights to terminate his position as vice principal? Most likely.

But I’m still trying to figure out who’s benefiting from this decision. And, for the life of me, I just can’t.