As Dar Williams was introducing her song “Iowa” during her Friday afternoon concert last week, she mentioned that many people took the song as proof that she was lesbian because of the line “I’ve never had a way with women, but the hills of Iowa make me wish that I could.” She added that the song “When I Was a Boy” was often taken as further proof, when in fact the song has nothing to do with sexuality and everything to do with gender. She was, I hasten to add, reacting more to people’s insistence on supporting unfounded assumptions in the face of reality than the assumption itself. She is noted and respected for her deep thinking on gender roles and gender typing, and as such and despite being straight, she has won praise from the LGBT community.
One of the things I love about working with 7th graders is their largely undimmed sense of justice and their willingness to keep an open mind. When I played my current Humanities 7 class the song “When I Was a Boy,” I asked them what they thought the title meant. Their first thoughts were that maybe it was about a transgender person, or perhaps about a friend of the songwriter, and then possibly about a woman who acted more like a boy is supposed to act while she was growing up (this student spoke with very heavy quotes around the word “supposed”). None of these possibilities roused any strong reactions other than agreement or jumping in to expand on the idea. Similarly, in listening to me read from If I Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson, when one of them asked if one of the main characters’ sisters was lesbian and I responded yes, they simply nodded and we moved on. Their first instincts may not necessarily be that a given person is transgender or lesbian, but nonetheless, LGBT people seem to be just a normal part of their world.
At the same time, in these early stages of discussing the book, which describes the relationship between a white girl and an African-American boy, the majority of them seem to be anchored in the belief that we live in a post-racial society. While I ache with hope that this is true for them, there is no question that our larger culture is anything but post-racial. When Latinas earn 51% of white men and 7% of the country is willing to state in a national poll that they would “never” vote for an African-American, we have a very long way to go indeed.
One of my good friends at the Teacher Leaders Network and on Twitter, José Vilson, is only days away from becoming a father. He has been tweeting and blogging his joy and anticipation for months, and it takes me back to the time that I was in that peculiar state of suspended animation you achieve when your baby’s due date has just passed, and the phrase “any day now” takes on a whole new meaning. As with the birth of any child, I find myself looking around me and thinking about the world as it is and the world as I would prefer to pass it on to the care of the next generation. Just because José is a person of color should not mean he alone is responsible for noting and fighting racism and building a better world for his son. But I wonder, am I being a good ally? Am I doing all the right things? At least equally importantly, am I doing enough?
Earlier tonight, I was sitting in Panera and taking a break from class preps to catch up on my various online communities. I came across a posting by a transgender police officer, one who is out only to selected family members and friends. She expressed her great admiration for a number of openly trans people, and her great regret that she was not brave enough to come out herself and help normalize the existence of people like herself. Of course, fear of losing her job and not being able to support her family played a major role in that decision. Responses to her post were uniformly supportive, but no doubt of little solace. If you feel certain you are not doing enough, no amount of comfort, however well meaning and true, will change your mind.
And moreover, as we work to move our society past dehumanizing stereotypes and prejudice and enable people to truly and fearlessly be their own best, authentic selves, we need to be thinking also about the world itself. Each year, as Humanities 7 students brainstorm what to study, some variation of the question “What will climate change do to the world by the time I grow up?” will be raised. This video of a 13-year-old Canadian girl speaking at a U.N. conference has recently been shared by a number of members of my Personal Learning Network, yet it was filmed back in 2008. Its timelessness shames us. More recently, Abigail Borah made the news for her own protest at the Durban climate change conference. I am no big fan of rudeness, but at the same time I do find myself wondering how else to get the attention of our and other nations’ governments. Quiet advocacy has gotten us precisely nowhere. At such moments (among others), I too feel certain I am not doing enough.
What would be enough? Equally importantly, what are the right things to do? If we want to support our children in building a better, more equitable, and more sustainable world, we need to be asking ourselves these questions. For me, it is one of the most important things I do as a teacher. And now, as I watch the six-year Seniors take their place leading the school and joining my son in reaching their 18th birthdays and registering to vote, as I think back to their 7th grade year and the questions they explored, I am happy and proud to have them take their place alongside me as adults and contribute their own efforts to building a better world. We need more people like them in our society. On this Human Rights Day 2011 (Saturday, December 10), they give me hope.