Having a Conversation

“Has Stoneleigh-Burnham ever had a transgender student?”

The question, asked in the middle of study hall, caught me momentarily by surprise but I recovered quickly and answered, “Yes, at least one that I know of, actually a former advisee of mine.”

“Did she…. or he or whatever… know it at the time?”

I weighed my answer carefully. “I don’t know for sure, but I think that he didn’t know it when she enrolled, if you see what I mean.”

“What would the school do if a transgender student wanted to apply?”

Several other girls looked over at me expectantly, awaiting the answers I would give in words and wordlessly. The simple directness of the question and tone of voice suggested they were primarily looking for a factual answer, if suspecting that the question of necessity opens up a can of worms for a single-gender school. Well aware that for these kids such topics are fresh and exciting, I wanted as always to respond directly and honestly, in a way that would allow them to form their own opinions, and in a way that would support anyone in the room who might happen to be or know anyone who is transgender. Trying to convey the warmth and openness I felt, I responded, “It’s a great question, and I honestly don’t know the answer.” Not quite the ringing words I was hoping for, but at least they were true. They asked how they could find out the answer, and I suggested they talk to Mr. Swartzentruber. Of course, I sent him an email right away letting him know the question might be coming up.

Three years ago, this conversation would probably never have occurred. Three years ago, the middle school team decided to invite the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) to do a series of workshops with the 7th and 8th graders following a number of instances of obliviously homophobic remarks. While we had addressed the remarks at the time, we thought that the students needed some information, and that learning about heterosexism from older students would be more effective than learning from us. The high school students responded beautifully, answering the usual deluge of questions that middle schoolers raise with grace and empathy, helping set a new tone wherein whatever anyone felt personally about homosexuality, those being personal beliefs which they had every right to have, conversations around the school needed to bear in mind that all people deserve to be treated with respect.

During the course of this workshop, the GSA members also defined the word transgender. As this was right around the time my former advisee came out to the school, I was moved to do some research into transgender people. I learned that not all transgender people feel they were born into the wrong body, that “transgender” is actually a huge umbrella term for many different ways of being. For example, some transgender people simply prefer to dress differently, and still others prefer to reject the gender binary altogether. I realized that when we talk about LGBT people, we often focus on the “LG” and/or the “B” and not quite so often on the “T.” It is, to be fair, a complex acronym in that sexuality is distinct from gender.

So when last year’s Humanities 7 class began to occasionally include transphobia in their discussions about prejudice and heterosexism, I was much more prepared than I would have been just two years previously, and we had a number of great discussions about how gender is defined and how that relates to gender expression, both for girls and for transgender people.

GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) is celebrating Ally Week from October 18-22. I think back to my years in junior high and the one student who had come out as being gay. I only heard fragments of conversations about him, but enough to know he must have felt just as absolutely miserable as he often looked as he strode through the corridors with a faint air of challenge as if he was continually expecting a fight. I look back on those years and wonder, had I known then what I know now, if I would have been able to stick up for him. I hope I would have. I hope even more that someone did.

So often at Stoneleigh-Burnham School, when there’s something that needs working out, we’ll talk about the importance of having a conversation, of leaving assumptions at the door and listening with an open mind, responding with a core of respect. Understanding and accepting all people, in all their uniqueness, is a necessary base, and one that is often easy for middle schoolers to achieve, obsessed as they are with understanding and accepting themselves, hyper-focused as they are on fairness. As we enter Ally Week, and as we at Stoneleigh-Burnham School continue to outline our anti-bullying policy, I can’t help but think that conversations like the one above, if handled well, can serve to normalize and destigmatize ways of being which can too often lead to bullying such as that long-ago student in Amherst Regional Junior High School experienced. Though they don’t always admit it, middle school kids still take many of their cues from the adults around them. It’s vital work, exciting work, necessary work – and work that must and will continue far beyond Ally Week.

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