Tori Wheatley is the eldest of five children, a UNC-Charlotte doctoral student and a self-described Queer “Ratchet” English Teacher. She’s authentic, has a dedicated willingness to relate to her students through an empathetic culturally sensitive lens and she loves hip hop.
Originally from Prince George County in Maryland, Wheatley relocated to Charlotte with her parents and four siblings around 2009. Since that time, she received her Bachelor’s Degree in English and a Master’s in Secondary Education.
Wheatley is truly one who is willing to go the extra mile for youth and fellow LGBTQ+ community members that may need a listening ear, a motivating pep talk or a loud voice in the face of discrimination or inequity. During our conversation with Wheatley, we talked candidly about her dreams, the challenges of teaching in today’s climate of overwhelming anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and how she stays sane in the midst of it all.
L’Monique King: You’ve been in Charlotte for a while now, purchased a home and seem deeply rooted in your career as an educator. Considering all that, do you consider Charlotte home?
Tori Wheatly: No, it’s a transition spot.
LMK: Why is that?
TW: Because home for me is the DC-Maryland area. If I had my choice I’d move back or go somewhere else more progressive than Charlotte.
LMK: When you say more progressive than Charlotte, are you thinking of something in particular?
TW: Culturally, though it’s gotten better, it’s still not where it needs to be. Educationally Charlotte is behind. When it comes to political views we’re definitely behind. The only thing that seems to be progressing is big businesses. I’m also noticing that as Charlotte grows, Black and Brown spaces are being pushed out.
LMK: Are you partnered?
TW: Yes. I’ve been with my partner for six years. She was born in Brooklyn, raised in Atlanta, has lived in the West Indies and considers herself international. So, I know for her, when it comes to living in Charlotte she has some of the same concerns.
LMK: What’s life like for a young professional lesbian couple living in the south?
TW: Uuuumm, that’s a good one. I think it can be difficult to find our people.
LMK: Not really, QNotes has a pretty good distribution list (both burst into laughter).
TW: …True, true. What I mean by that is, I find Charlotte to be a bit clickish. You have to know someone. As a young professional who is always busy, I don’t always have the luxury of going out to network outside of work. For us, we don’t have a place to go and meet. Charlotte doesn’t have an LGBTQ+ community center. We have a youth center but not much for adults.
LMK: Knowing that you’re a lover of hip-hop and an educator, do the two ever intersect for you?
TW: Always. I integrate my love of hip-hop; especially the core values of hip-hop which are community, activism, and freedom of self-expression, unapologetic self-expression.
LMK: Drake or Future?
TW: Future, dang, that came out too quick <laughter> I love Drake, but Future is like my alter-ego. I love them both, but I think I’ve been a Future fan for a long time. Probably since my freshman year in college.
LMK: How about the women? Glorilla or Sukihana?
TW: Glorilla. I love her personality as an artist and love how she supports those around her. She’s a family person and definitely does her homework when it comes to her art and her progression.
LMK: While we’re on the subject of discussing an art form and culture that is celebrating 50 years of its inception we’ve just got to know; who would you say are the top three hip-hop artists of all time?
TW: <Thoughtful pause> Of all time? Lil Wayne. Without Wayne there would be no Drake. Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole. Lyrically no one can touch them. They tell stories and keep it relevant. But I’ve got to add a woman to that list. So, Lauryn Hill. She’s in a category of her own actually. Similar to Cole and Drake she’s lyrically phenomenal and so legendary [her work and musical contributions] it’s taught at primary and university levels. To only have one [studio recorded] album (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill) and have it resonate the way it has is unprecedented.
LMK: Speaking of education, let’s talk a little about your journey as a high school teacher. In your experience, what do you find most challenging about teaching?
TW: <Without a moment’s hesitation> Supporting students’ social and emotional well being. Especially with all the things they go through, family, hormones, teenage life. Just being able to support them in the classroom – most of my job is doing that.
LMK: What gives you the greatest joy in teaching?
TW: My students. Hearing from them post high school. Seeing them in the hallways, out and about and hearing from them how impactful I’ve been – sometimes we don’t realize the influence we have.
LMK: The Charlotte Mecklenburg School (CMS) Board recently approved a new student health policy and modified three others – bringing the district into compliance with newly passed anti-LGBTQ legislation [Senate Bill 49 aka “Parents’ Bill of Rights”] in the North Carolina General Assembly. How, if at all do you think these policies will impact your students and your ability to teach?
TW: They [Legislators and supporters] don’t understand the mental impact these policies will have on our kids. With suicide rates already being what they are, these law makers do not understand the impact of calling a child what they want to be called and the power that has. I worry about my kids every day. It’s why I just became Mental Health First Aide Certified. So, if a kid is in crisis or are talking about or showing signs of suicide, the training gives you the skills to talk to that child and give them the support they need.
LMK: Any suggestions for parents regarding the new policies?
TW: Love your kids for who they are. A lot of the issues that I’m seeing stem from a lack of support at home. They need at least one trusted adult to feel validated and reduce suicide thoughts and attempts. Seek resources if you’re unsure of your child’s mental state or whatever they are encountering during these critical years of finding themselves. That includes coming out or transitioning into the person they want to be, whether that’s physical, mental, a new phase of life and definitely transgender identity.
LMK: As a teacher and GSA advisor how do you affirm and protect LGBTQ students?
TW: I have flags hanging on my walls. I let students, parents and staff know where to find me if a student needs support. I make sure everyone knows my classroom is a safe space. I call my students what they want to be called. I ask about preferred pronouns on day one. If I mess up, I apologize and I always have free mental health resources available in my classroom for kids to pick up at their leisure. I show up outside of school too – at their jobs and extracurricular activities – making sure I’m a face in my community. I make sure that I’m exemplifying the behaviors that I expect them to have in the world.
LMK: So you’re out at school?
TW: Oh yeah. I’m out and proud. Everybody knows. My school is very supportive, but every school is different – so every teacher doesn’t necessarily have the same luxury of a supportive admin team. I have friends who teach who can’t be their authentic selves at their schools because of how they identity, their orientation, their beliefs on how to support their kids or even their race. All those intersectionalities matter and can create difficulties for teachers.
LMK: In light of the new CMS policy what do you want concerned high school students to know?
TW: That their voices have power. That they have the power to stick together and advocate in ways that will hopefully make change. I’d say to them, stay strong, you have support, and we will get through this.
LMK: With all that you do, how do you take care of you? Do you have a self-care routine or way of keeping a healthy work/life balance?
TW: Yes, I definitely love my at home yoga, meditation and being in nature. Being around my family and friends, like minded people who love me and traveling help too. Sometimes my self-care is something as simple as taking an extra long bath or shower and having some quiet time….and of course, my music – my hip-hop
LMK: What does Ms. Wheately’s ideal future look like? What is she doing 10 years from now?
TW: Hopefully, having already graduated with my PhD in Curriculum and Instruction. I see myself having my own community center for Black and Brown LGBTQ+ youth. Maybe having a school or potentially teaching at an HBCU or Ivy League University. I’d love to travel and teach internationally, subjects on hip-hop, queerness and equity.
LMK: Before we go, is there anything you’d like readers to know about you that we haven’t discussed?
TW: I’d like readers to know that I also support LGBTQ+ youth through a part time position at Time Out Youth where I am now the Student Advocacy Specialist, supporting Gay Straight Alliances in middle schools, high schools and universities. We don’t just support GSAs we also support schools who don’t have them and organizations looking for more resources on how to better support the LGBTQ community. I love it.