BENTON, NE—They say adversity brings people closer together. They say hardship only strengthens the ties that bind.
On April 2, the people of Benton, a tiny farming community of 1,200 in the northwest corner of Nebraska, got the opportunity to find out for themselves. That was the fateful day it was discovered that Nancy Kimble, the new gym teacher at Benton Junior High School, is a lesbian.
The crisis easily could have torn the town apart. But instead, it only made the people of Benton stronger, serving as a precious reminder of what truly matters.
"My first reaction was, 'A lesbian gym teacher? How could this happen here? Maybe somewhere else, but not in Benton,'" said Georgia Ellison, a lifelong resident of the town. "I was devastated. But everyone has been so unbelievably supportive of each other throughout this whole ordeal. In hard times like these, you really find out who your friends are."
Carolyn Marchand, whose daughter Stephanie is in Kimble's sixth-period class, reacted to the news with shock and fear. But even before she could grab her keys and race to school to pick up Stephanie, there was a knock at the door. Leslie North, a neighbor she barely knew, was standing on her porch.
"Leslie said she was just as shaken as I was, and told me that if there was anything at all she could do to help, I shouldn't hesitate to ask," Marchand said. "Then I invited her in, and we had apple pie and just talked for a few hours. It was then that I knew we were going to be all right."
Added Marchand: "Thank God we found out before the swimming unit started."
The crisis began at approximately 10:15 a.m. on April 2, when, before an entire second-period gym class, seventh-grader Jodi Woodring asked Kimble if she was gay. Kimble replied yes, and within an hour, word of the lesbian presence had spread throughout Benton. The school's switchboards were swamped with calls, the city council called an emergency meeting, and the mayor made an impassioned plea for calm, imploring parents to remove their children from school in "as orderly a manner as possible."
But amid the chaos and pain were countless moments of human kindness, of selfless individuals placing the well-being of their fellow Bentonians ahead of their own.
Jeff and Irene McArdle, whose sixth-grade daughter Annie had suffered exposure to lesbianism, were moved by the outpouring of support they felt from the community. "Our neighbors, the Slumans, have three children who were in [Kimble's] class, so they certainly had their own troubles," Irene said. "But when they found out that our Annie had tried out for the volleyball team, which was coached by Kimble, they sent us a bouquet of flowers and a note saying they were glad Annie didn't make the team and was safe again. Knowing people care really helps you get through something terrible like this."
Bob Watters, whose daughter Shannon took gym under the safe tutelage of the aggressively heterosexual Mr. Voorhees, said everyone in the community has a responsibility to do his or her part.
"Our family, thank God, was spared," Watters said. "But we know it easily could have been us instead of the Piatkowskis or the Ryans or the Bettencourts. That's why we all need to do everything we can for each other—especially for the children—during this dark time."
The people of Benton know that only through love, understanding and compassion will they put this painful episode behind them. And slowly but surely, they are beginning to do just that.