She will be remembered Saturday as a social warrior, a defender of those who couldn’t defend themselves, a game changer.

Betsy Parsons with her niece, Katie Rose. Photo by Scott Parsons

But at her core, Betsy Parsons was a teacher.

Take this tale from 1977, the first of Betsy’s 30 years as a Portland high school educator. It comes to us compliments of John Johnson, whose career in education paralleled Betsy’s from their years as graduate students at Brown University to their decades in Portland’s public schools.

“There was a chorus back then at Portland High,” Johnson recalled Tuesday. “And the superintendent told her, ‘If you will (run) this chorus, we’ll hire you.’”

So, she did. The chorus consisted of about 10 students, all girls. Most were struggling with school at the time, making chorus a place of last resort for teachers and counselors who couldn’t figure out where else to send them.

Betsy loved music, singing it and playing it. But she absolutely hated the then-popular song “Feelings” by Morris Albert, with its sappy lyrics and melodramatic melody.

Problem was one of the girls in the group worshiped the tune. After much negotiation, Betsy reluctantly agreed to play it – but absolutely no more than once a week.

“And they would try and sing it,” Johnson said, leaning hard on the word “try.”

One day, the “Feelings” girl arrived at chorus in full meltdown over some unspecified trauma. Bursting into the third-story classroom, she made a beeline for a nearby window, opened it, put one foot out on the ledge and announced that she couldn’t take it anymore, she was going to jump.

The distraught student was considerably larger than Betsy, who quickly realized she had neither the time nor the physical strength to pull the girl  back in to safety.

Instead, amid all the commotion, Betsy sat down at the piano.

“Feelings,” she bellowed at the top of her lungs. “Nothing more than feelings …”

It worked.

“She literally lured that young woman back into the room,” Johnson said. “Singing her heart out with that song she hated.”

Betsy, 65, died Sept. 5 of complications from myelodysplastic syndrome, a rare blood disorder. Much has been said in the ensuing days and weeks about her courageous journey from closeted lesbian teacher in the 1980s to out-and-proud advocate for LGBTQ rights – particularly for high school students caught between their sexual orientation and the bullying and harassment it engenders even to this day.

But her years of work on equal rights comprise only part of a life exceptionally well lived.

“She loved kids,” said Scott Parsons, Betsy’s younger brother, who joined Johnson this week to reflect on his sister as her memorial service approached. “And she would do anything for any of them, regardless of where they were from, gay or straight, male or female. If a kid needed help, and somebody to fight for them, Betsy was always there, no matter what.”

The honors and accolades she accumulated over her 42 years in Maine are too numerous to list here. Still, one is particularly noteworthy: Last May, as her health declined, the Maine Legislature unanimously passed a legislative sentiment praising Betsy for her leadership in making schools safer and more welcoming for kids of all gender identities and all sexual orientations.

Among the many lawmakers who rose to speak that day was freshman state Rep. Christopher Caiazzo, D-Scarborough, who counts himself among one of “Miss Parsons’ ” thousands of former students.

Acknowledging that he was a hell-raiser of sorts during his Portland High School days, Caiazzo recounted how Miss Parsons saw right through his frequent high jinks – such as the time he broke his middle finger playing basketball and, per doctor’s orders, elevated the splinted digit whenever it caused him pain.

Middle finger notwithstanding, Miss Parsons focused not on an obvious wise guy, but on a kid who showed real promise, a kid who would go on to be the first college graduate in his family.

Two decades later, Caiazzo ran for state representative for the first time and, much to his disappointment, lost.

“It was a long and tedious campaign, and I was tired and frustrated,” he told his legislative colleagues. “In the middle of my little pity party, out of the blue, after all those years, I received a message from Miss Parsons. It simply said, ‘Proud of you, Chris’ with a heart emoji.”

Pausing to compose himself – this was his first-ever House floor speech – Caiazzo continued, “At that moment, I was instantly that 15-year-old kid again with the broken finger, although hopefully a little wiser. She hadn’t given up on me then and here she was again encouraging me. That’s who Betsy Parsons is – a dedicated teacher, a beloved colleague and a true role model for her students and fellow human beings.”

Former students will abound on Saturday at Betsy’s memorial service, scheduled for 4 p.m. at the First Parish Portland Unitarian Universalist Church on Congress Street.

They undoubtedly will hear once again about how Betsy, by then a teacher at Deering High School, could no longer hide her own sexual orientation while she watched so many of her students struggling with theirs. How she took the plunge one day in 1998 during an English class discussion of the “The Scarlet Letter.”

Betsy recreated the scene in Mason Funk’s “The Book of Pride: LGBTQ Heroes Who Changed the World,” a collection of essays published this year:

“The discussion was about stigma and judgment, and how communities respond, and the moral choices that individuals have in the face of mass community stigma.

Finally, a student said, “This is like gay people. We do this to gay people all the time. We’re just like these Puritans judging people and saying terrible things about them.” That gave me the opening to say, “Well, I know something about that. I’m a lesbian. In the novel, we see how different people respond to stigma. And we see (protagonist) Hester’s decision to live openly and turn her energy into something healing for the community. I am now changing my way to Hester’s way. What way will you choose?”

What followed, Betsy wrote, was “one of the best discussions of my career.” Later that day, about two dozen students came to her classroom seeking her help in forming Deering’s first gay-straight alliance – one of 70 Betsy would work tirelessly to create all over Maine.

Others will recall Betsy’s many other battles for fairness and justice, from her Facebook protest of new admission fees at Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth – once a “magical healing place” for a stressed out, financially strapped young teacher; to her praise for Native Americans fighting to eliminate the use of offensive mascots in Maine high schools. “Confronting the toxicity of discrimination and inequality is soul-searing,” she wrote on Facebook. “It takes courage.”

Still others will note how Betsy, in her later years, dedicated herself to Portland’s immigrant population. How she sang the national anthem during President Barack Obama’s visit to Portland in 2008. Or how, whenever she voted, she held a Susan B. Anthony coin in one hand.

“Betsy was an absolute patriot,” Scott Parsons said. “She loved this country, she loved what it stood for. She talked a lot about what America meant to her, the ideals of liberty, freedom and equal rights for all. She actually lived it. She lived it more than anybody I’ve ever known. And fought for it more than anybody I’ve ever known – no matter what they were, or who they were, or what they looked like.”

As for me, I’ll miss Betsy’s periodic emails in response to this or that column. As I read through them now, I’m struck by a common thread.

Her favorite word was “love.”


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