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Abigail Swetz

As a teacher, Abigail Swetz provided a safe space for her eighth graders. But she didn't want to shelter them, either. "That's a really significant tension," she said.

Being upfront about her sexual identity and her 10-year struggle with an eating disorder is part of what made Abigail Swetz an effective teacher — in that way, she made herself vulnerable and built trust among students, she said.

Until last year, Swetz, 35, was a teacher at O’Keeffe Middle School. There, she made a difference in the lives of 60 students a year for six years, but yearned to do more.

She left teaching and is now a graduate student at UW-Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs with the intention of going into nonprofit advocacy work.

Swetz grew up in Spring Green, where her father, Theodore Swetz, helped found American Players Theatre. Her mother, Victoria Swetz, is a retired French teacher.

She lived in Spring Green until she was 8. Then the family adopted her sister from Thailand and moved to Kansas City.

High school and college — Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri — were challenging for Swetz as she struggled with anorexia. Thanks to a strong support network of friends and family, she finally went into inpatient treatment in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She was hospitalized for five months and then lived in Tulsa on her own for another six months to make sure the recovery was going to stick.

“As soon as I knew I was good — at least tentatively good — I moved to Madison, because I always knew I wanted to live here as an adult,” she said. “And my best friend lived here, and I knew if I lived near somebody who already knew me, I would be far more likely to stay in recovery.”

In November, Swetz wrote about her eating disorder in Our Lives magazine, which focuses on Madison’s LGBTQ community and its allies. Swetz discussed being an out “proud queer public school teacher” and why she left the field.

She’s also written a one-woman play, “An Uncommon Core: The Spoken Word Journey of One Middle School Classroom,” and will learn next month whether it gets accepted into a New York festival.

Swetz, in recovery for 11 years, said her eating disorder is no longer part of her daily story. But it was in overcoming her anorexia that she was able to come out as a lesbian, she said. “I didn’t come out until I was healthy. So in my head, there’s still a lot that is linked there.”

Swetz met her wife, Angela Baerwolf, at a “Welcoming Schools” professional development workshop put on by the Madison School District more than three years ago. Baerwolf, a social worker at Black Hawk Middle School, and Swetz were going through the training as advisers for the Gay Straight Alliance at their respective schools.

Baerwolf proposed to Swetz at a GSA meeting at O’Keeffe last year with all of Swetz’s GSA students in on the surprise.

What is your long-term goal after getting your degree in public affairs?

That’s the million-dollar question. There are a lot of answers to that and I haven’t figured out one yet. My long-term goal is to find a way to continue to be an advocate for youth, but on a larger scale than I was as a teacher. About 75 percent of me went back to school because I got really inspired by my students and their activism and their ideas and frustrations that their voices are never heard and that they never get a seat at the table, yet all of this policy affects them ... And about 25 percent of me was getting really frustrated with the way public education is run in America and the way teachers are blamed for things that we have no control over, because there is so much that influences what happens in a classroom that has nothing to do with ed policy ... Like SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps) influence what happens in my room because it has to do with whether or not my students are eating. Yet, when they are not succeeding in my room, partially because of things that I don’t control, like the fact that they’re not getting enough food, public school teachers are a pretty easy scapegoat in my opinion. I wanted to find a way to bring a teacher’s voice to those discussions.

Do you have any thoughts about what can be done about the achievement gap, the most vexing problem facing Madison schools?

Yes, it is a vexing problem, especially in Madison ... The first thing I think we need to do is stop calling it an achievement gap, because calling it an achievement gap to me puts the onus on the student, because they are not “achieving.” Whereas, I think it’s more helpful to rephrase it as an engagement gap. Because it’s up to the schools to engage the students, so that they can achieve, and I don’t think that is happening as much as it could be.

What is your opinion of the Common Core curriculum?

I actually don’t mind Common Core. Common Core is a really easy boogeyman, but again, this is just a language thing, kind of like the achievement gap and the engagement gap. I really wish Common Core state standards were not called standards... I wish they were called skills, because that’s what they are. Common Core is a list of skills every eighth grader in this country should be able to do by the end of eighth grade. I think that’s a great idea. I think there are skills that we should all be able to do by the end of eighth grade and I appreciate that teachers need to be held accountable, that we are actually teaching the skills that need to be taught. That being said, how to teach them, I think, needs to be more individualized according to what students really need.

What kind of advice do you have for a seventh-grader, or young girls who are starting to have body image issues?

I had a really hard time hearing the people around me, who loved me, say things like, “We love you and you are a wonderful person, you are a beautiful soul and person.” It was really difficult to hear, but ... I’m glad I heard it because eventually it sunk in. That’s ... advice for all the people around the seventh grader. ... Keep up with the positive affirmations. Keep with the encouragement. Keep with the concern.

I started sliding into an eating disorder when I was 14. I didn’t get better until I was 24. But I only got better at 24 because people started helping me at 14. They were concerned and I blew them off, but I’m really glad that they voiced their love because it was something to hold onto eventually. Because for a long time I didn’t believe I had much worth. But I saw that other people thought I did, and it helped me to finally internalize that ... The advice to the seventh-grader is to realize that it is possible to feel good about yourself.

— Interview by Samara Kalk Derby


Wisconsin State Journal food writer Samara Kalk Derby brings you the latest news on the Madison area's eclectic restaurant scene.