NEWTON - In a history classroom at Newton South High School, you'll find Bob Parlin, at least for another week.
The ninth-grade world history teacher is retiring next week after 35 years. Parlin decided to put away his lesson plans after a career where he made history of his own.
It was 1992 when Parlin came out as gay to his fellow teachers and students. A student that also came out approached the teacher with the idea to start a group where gay and straight students could meet to learn from each other.
That need for open dialogue ultimately turned into the first meeting of the former Gay-Straight Alliance, now the Genders & Sexualities Alliance, in a U.S. public school.
"We thought maybe two or three students might join us and we could talk, but 50 students showed up," said Parlin. "We specifically chose a room that was far away in a distant part of the building so the students wouldn't feel so embarrassed."
The group has been meeting for 30 years.
Students like graduating senior Jordan Smith-Michaels said leading the GSA played a major role in her high school experience.
"It was nice for me to find a place in high school that I could make my own," said Smith-Michaels. "I think it is very important to have a place at school where you go every single day to be with your friends and be accepted and not feel 'othered' at all."
Rising junior Ben Miner said, "I think it's important that people feel welcomed and that they are able to share what is going on because oftentimes, it's something really stressful or personal."
These students said creating a safe space for students to discuss topics of sexuality and gender are a matter of life and death, and there are studies that support this. The Trevor Project surveyed more than 34,000 LGBTQ youth ages 13 to 24 and found that 45% of them reported having 'seriously considered' suicide last year.
Ben Miner said it is part of the reason the group has continued to meet over the last 30 years.
"I would love to see a point in the world where people no longer have to struggle with coming out and having potentially dangerous or harmful experiences coming out, but I think even then the GSA will still keep going," said Miner.
Although Parlin is set to retire, he had a final lesson for those who want to make a difference.
"I hope people will listen more to young people," Parlin said. "Ask them questions about how they are feeling and realize we need to support all of our students and create an environment where they feel safe and welcomed loved and included. I don't think anyone in the country really disagrees with that."
The GSA is now located in over 10,000 public schools across the country.
for more features.