Betty Lark Ross: A Social and Technological Trailblazer

Betty Lark Ross:  A Social and Technological Trailblazer

Beloved art teacher, and the faculty member who launched LGBTQ+ inclusivity and equity work at Latin, Betty Lark Ross, is retiring after 39 years with the school.

Talented in numerous artistic media, she was drawn to Latin by the wide range of topics she would be able to teach. Assuredly, that is why Latin was equally drawn to her. Ross started at Latin with just 25 percent of Upper School students involved in visual arts, and she leaves having accomplished her goal of increasing high school participation in visual arts to 100 percent.

Ms. Ross joined Latin at a time when film photography represented cutting edge innovation. Unlike many people her age, who struggle to keep up with evolving computers and gadgets, Ms. Ross has a particular love of, and skill in, technology. Along with ceramics and Global Studies: Visual Arts, she has taught Photography, Film Making, and Digital Visual Arts, a course she herself founded.

Though she continues to teach traditional darkroom developing, Ms. Ross was eager to learn to use Photoshop when it first emerged a few years after she began teaching at Latin. She requested that Latin send her for training in the software, where she found herself learning among advertising executives from Maybelline Cosmetics and the U.S. Division of Forestry.

Junior Joey Gorman has taken two photography courses with Ms. Ross as well as an independent study in photography. He was also an assistant teacher in one of her fall photography courses this year. “She saw my love of photography early on during my freshman year, and she introduced me to both the yearbook and the photography club.” Ms. Ross has worked with the yearbook for 33 years, and this year’s edition was dedicated in her honor.

“Ms. Ross helped me develop my skills in photography, and her enthusiasm and creativity helped me develop my own passion for photography,” Joey added.

As Ms. Ross led the technological revolution in the field of visual arts, she also fearlessly spearheaded Latin’s social 180 toward embracing students and staff historically hidden away (at best) or disparaged. Most of Latin’s current community are likely unfamiliar with her groundbreaking work in the school’s LGBTQ+ inclusivity movement.

According to Ms. Ross, about 25 years ago, a sex ed teacher put up a poster in the senior lounge that read, “What to do if your best friend tells you they are gay.” Shortly after its posting, the flyer went missing, and reapeared vandalized with homophobic statements. Still closeted at the time, Ms. Ross took the poster to the dean, and the senior lounge eventually became off-limits to the students. Ross explained that there were other reasons the lounge was taken away, but that the poster was an inciting incident.

Around that time, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), for which Ms. Ross had been secretly writing newsletters—as she was one of the only members who knew how to use the software involved—asked her to become the female co-chair. It was at this time that Ms. Ross and her partner Becky were celebrating their 10th anniversary. “We were going to the Taj Mahal,” said Ms. Ross, “and I said I would contemplate it while we were there.”

Ms. Ross was feeling valued at the school, having been elected the chair of the Visual Arts Department after only two years at Latin, but she was still worried about communicating to the administration her decision to accept the position at GLSEN. Her name would be synonymous with the LGBT civil rights movement, and therefore so would Latin’s, given her leadership position. “It was a big risk for me, because Latin does not have tenure.”

Ms. Ross was very pleased with the administration’s response. “Everyone I spoke to was so supportive.”

At the time, Ms. Ross was not the public speaker her students know her to be today and was hesitant about filling such a significant leadership role. “But, I learned that what I had to say was more important than how I was feeling about saying it.”

“At first, I wasn’t really sure that my involvement with GLSEN would change Latin, but it really did.” Over the next few years, Ms. Ross brought in guest speakers to teach about LGBTQ+ discrimination. She sparked celebrations of LGBTQ+ history month and brought in a panel of very brave high school students who were already out at their schools to talk about their experiences.

She also brought an About Face Theater production, a play called In Defense of Marriage, to Latin’s Wrigley Theater. The play had never been performed at a high school, but Ms. Ross remained in contact with the theater after they appeared at Latin, and they eventually became involved with Project Week. About Face Theater later started a youth theater program that some Latin students participated in.

After Ms. Ross and a Middle School student of hers came out to each other about 25 years ago, the student said she wanted to start a gay, lesbian, and straight club at Latin. Ms. Ross responded, “Well, we won’t ask permission, we are just going to set up a table at the club’s fair and get people to sign up.”

“And we did, and it worked.” That club eventually grew into the LGBTQ+ affinity that Upper School students and faculty know today. Junior and co-head of the affinity Kazi Stanton-Thomas is thankful for Ms. Ross’s contributions to LGBTQ+ inclusion and equity work at the school. “Miss Ross, I feel, was everyone’s first introduction to the LGBTQ+ environment at Latin. She was completely open and present.”

Among her many accomplishments is creating Latin’s permanent art collection, which allows select works to be featured around the school. She described the school’s art displays in her earlier Latin years as “really big ugly murals” among entirely white walls. “I am a visualist,” she said. “I want to see lots of interesting things around me. The fact that our school now is a museum is actually pretty cool.”

Ms. Ross believes that the way in which Latin has grown the most over the past 39 years is in its diversity work. “Support for diversity is now a priority at the school,” said Ms. Ross. “It’s constant learning, as well, because we are a much more diverse community.” Ms. Ross said that when she started working at Latin, everyone came from the same zip code. Now, students come from 75 different neighborhoods and 12 Chicago suburbs.

Joey, like many, has loved learning from Ms. Ross, and Ms. Ross has loved to teach. “You teach the student both through modeling what a fabulous life looks like,” she said, “and also through your love, and for me it’s all about love. I do believe that the more that you actually practice and play with the things that you love, the more you love them.”

The search for Ms. Ross’s replacement is sure to be a challenging endeavor, as both her versatility as a teacher and commitment to the Latin community have been quite remarkable. Ms. Ross offered some words of advice to any teachers new to Latin in any department: “Be true to yourself, and bring your whole self to your job, and don’t limit yourself through any fear but express yourself through what you love.”

To students, she said, “Trust who you are to become, and spend your life becoming your best you. Find ways to fall deeper and deeper in love with learning.”

“I stayed at Latin for so many years because I felt valued and respected here, and supported.” For Ms. Ross, retiring from Latin is not an ending, but a new beginning. She and Becky bought a house on a river with a small boat in Kankakee. She plans to attend a hot air balloon festival in New Mexico and is organizing a trip to Kenya. “You create the life you want; the secret is to envision it,” she said. “I have more to contribute to the world.”