He Said She Said

He doesn’t really remember his early childhood, of course. His first memory is a birthday – his third? – when his parents gave him a doll and a doll-carriage. He remembers holding his doll with a growing sense of confusion as he overhears his grandparents in the next room telling his parents, “The doll is fine, but the carriage is going too far.” He put the carriage away for the rest of his grandparents’ visit, not wanting them to fight with his parents again.

She doesn’t really remember her early childhood, of course. Her first memory is a birthday – her third? – when her parents gave her a doll and carriage and her grandparents gave her clothing for it. She remembers cradling the newly-outfitted doll, and everyone praising her for taking such good care of her baby.

He seemed to spend more time getting yelled at in gym class than having fun. While he actually loved sports – especially basketball, tennis, and biking – and ran relatively fast for such a little guy, no one ever seemed to notice, and at any rate most of his friends weren’t that athletic either and professed loudly and frequently that high school sports were overemphasized. Thus, it wouldn’t be until he was in his late 20s that anyone would tell him he had any athletic ability at all. Now 52, he continues to love running, and while he increasingly feels the necessity of daily exercise to maintain both his speed and endurance, he knows that he is in good shape for his age.

The ugly one-piece gymsuits told the story – no one really expected her to be all that active. She saw girls around her pushing to take their place alongside boys, forcing their way onto the swim team or arguing the volleyball team was just as deserving of support as the football team; she agreed and was supportive though she didn’t feel it really affected her personally. She did love playing tennis and going on bike rides with friends, but it wouldn’t be until she was an adult that she took up running and finally realized the sport her body was born to do all along. Now 52, she continues to love running, and tries to fit in at least a couple of miles every day. On a good day, she even manages to place in local 10K races she enters, and it gives her a feeling of pride.

He loved his wife deeply and felt they had created a strong marriage and an equal partnership. But while having a son together only deepened that bond, it also changed him more than he expected. Any time anyone attempted to put his son in a gender box, he reacted swiftly and with a surprising, uncharacteristic, and barely suppressed anger. Gender equity, always a priority in his life, became a cause. Meanwhile, summers off while his wife was working brought him the luxury of endless hours spent living in his son’s world – exploring the fields near the house, going on walks in the neighbourhood, playing out ritual dramas with his son’s toys as they revised and refined the original scripts day to day. Perhaps in part because of the bond created in those days, his son never really went through the turbulent separation you see with some teenagers, and they continue to enjoy an exceptionally close and loving relationship to this day.

Having a son brought out a new side in her. Having carried him for nine months, breastfed him, and attended to his every need when he was a baby, having developed an unbelievably close and loving relationship during his childhood, the thought of him potentially growing distant from her when he reached puberty and began to self-define the kind of man he wanted to be was devastating. Of course, she and her partner (now her wife) had no way of knowing whether that would even happen with a son who had two mothers for parents. Still, she couldn’t bear the thought of a possible emotional separation from her son even for a few years. Luckily, that separation never came, perhaps because of that relationship developed during his childhood, and they continue to enjoy an exceptionally close and loving relationship to this day.

He’s settled well into his role as a gender activist, knowing that having spent a lifetime in a girls school has affected that, knowing too that he wouldn’t have spent a lifetime in a girls school if he were a different person. Over the years, he has broadened his knowledge and understanding, of gender politics, of other people, of himself. He is working increasingly to break down gender walls and expand people’s thinking beyond a fixed gender binary, in the process working toward liberating himself – and, hopefully, other people – to fully and completely be their true selves. Thus, when a student mentions the question, “Who would I be as a boy?” it catches his attention. Who would he have been if born a girl? Let’s see… “She doesn’t really remember her early childhood, of course…”

She is enjoying the sense of stability and accomplishment that comes from having worked a lifetime in a girls school, setting the example of being a strong feminist, helping encourage those ideals of fairness and equity and the tools of strength and power in her students. Just as she supports girls and women breaking down gender barriers to be their own true selves, so too does she support boys and men doing the same. Having a transgender student only added to her sense of mission. Thus, when a student mentions the question, “Who would I be as a boy?” it catches her attention. Who would she have been if born a boy? Let’s see… “He doesn’t really remember his early childhood, of course…”

* With thanks to my Humanities 7 student Heidi for asking the question that inspired this memoir-essay.


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Filed under Gender, In the Classroom, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

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