05/30/2013 07:05 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Coming Out of the Closet, One Letter at a Time

Getty Images

"I'm not sure that your high school English teacher being gay has anything to do with your story, other than the fact that it makes a great marketing angle."

My friend is thinking about the media storm that Jason Collins' announcement stirred up and wondering if writers are tempted to trade on the hoopla. But my English teacher being gay has everything to do with our story because during our relationship he was still in the closet. Everyone was in the closet in the late '70s. And they stayed in the closet. There was no ticker-tape parade for coming out of it.

I was in the closet too. Or maybe it's better to say that there was a skeleton in my closet; it was me, on my way to becoming one. My secret was that I was a straight-A high school student starving myself to death, mostly to stave off puberty, to ward off sidelong glances and inappropriate comments from men who were old enough to be my father (swim coaches and teachers included). It's much harder to be desired by men when you're shaped like a 12-year-old boy. Being flat-chested and slim-hipped was my armor, and starving myself assured that I was always wearing it. Poet Louise Glück writes poignantly of coming of age and discovering her own growing breasts, her "interfering flesh" that she would sacrifice by starvation "until the limbs were free of blossom." That's what I wanted too, to be free of blossom.

That was it, really, the thing that connected my teacher John and me from the very beginning: our secrets. We didn't know the particular contents of each other's closets, not at first. Those confessions came later, through our letters, when geographical distance granted us immunity. What we did know during my high school years is that the other was playacting, that neither of us was who we appeared to be. When we conspired to create a third secret, we had no idea we were protecting the other; we intended only to protect ourselves. We invented a love affair. John spread the rumor among the other teachers about a secret engagement, but by then there were already suspicions because of all the time we spent together. (I was not only his best student but the editor of the newspaper he advised.) This third secret served a twofold purpose: It protected John from rumors that he was gay (he was old enough and attractive enough to be married, after all), and it provided a barrier between me and the other male faculty. Banished were the swimsuit-clad pedophiles and rear-viewing government teachers. Our mutual secret hid our individual secrets -- that we were both disguising our sexuality -- even if we didn't know it at the time.

The letters, and the confessions, continued for 10 years past high school. Between our two worlds there was joy and pain, a heartbreak and a marriage, thoughts of suicide, the birth of a child -- all confided on paper, all put down in black and white. Then John died unexpectedly; he was only 40. I bundled up his letters and hid them away in my closet, where they stayed for 20 years. A few years ago I pulled them out and read them all, transcribing each of the 25,000 words he had written to me. I was never able to thank him for his influence on my life -- for teaching me to write, for insisting that I read the best books, for being the one person I couldn't fool; by the time I was old enough to realize his impact, he was no longer here to thank. But what I can do is take his letters from the closet and lay bare the relationship that evoked them.

I can thank him by making sure that the English teacher who didn't live long enough to publish his great American novel now gets a voice, speaking through his compelling and intimate letters, his purest writing, because his student and secret sharer finally realized that no part of anyone's life, including her own, should be hidden in a closet.

Amy Hollingsworth is the author of Letters From the Closet: Ten Years of Correspondence That Changed My Life (Howard/Simon & Schuster, May 2013), as well as another letter-writing book about her friendship with television's Fred Rogers.