It was early in my second year at Pine Cobble School. Though all my students had arrived in the classroom, it wasn’t yet time for class to actually start and I was mentally going over my goals for the day while the students, all in eighth grade, talked among themselves. One of them was going on at some length about what a pain his mother was, and a second, whose parents were divorced, jumped in with “You think you’ve got it bad? I’ve got two mothers!” A third student, caught up in the moment, topped that with “Oh yeah? Well, I’ve got three mothers!” There was a brief pause and then the second student said scornfully, “What are you talking about? You can’t have three mothers!” The third student, whose parents were also divorced and whose mother was in a lesbian partnership, looked at me with a note of desperation on his face. “I think,” I stated unequivocally to the class, “the boy knows how many mothers he has.” My student’s face relaxed into gratefulness as two other students nodded approvingly and the second boy’s face struggled through confusion for a few agonizing moments before bursting with realization.
There’s no question that we set a tone in our classrooms, and that tone can make all our students feel welcomed. Or not. The choice is ours. Of course, if we really and truly love all our students there isn’t really a choice. And with each choice, one act at a time, we can build a welcoming classroom culture that endures from year to year. One keystone moment for me was the first day of my third year at Pine Cobble School. I was going over the usual course outline and classroom routines with my sixth grade French class when a student raised his hand and said, “I heard you don’t let people say ‘You’re so gay’ in your classroom.” “That’s right,” I responded warmly and with a smile. He nodded and smiled back, and I thought back to the first time someone had used that expression in my classroom and I had responded firmly but quietly, “Please don’t say that again.” “Why not?” the student asked and, taking this as a genuine question and not a challenge, I answered, “Because I have friends and relatives who are gay and the expression is insulting.” I didn’t have to have very many more conversations before the expression disappeared entirely from my classroom. And now, it was clear why.
Recently, AMLE was holding a special Twitter chat to celebrate Middle Level Education Month. During the course of it, Robert McGarry of GLSEN asked, “Wondering if your curriculum provides all students w/windows 2 see the world & mirrors 2 see themselves, including #LGBT students #MLEM13 ?” I answered, “Yes we do! Talked just today about asexuality, pansexuality, different flavours of transgender, intersex…” I’ll confess that I was, however, the only person in a busy chat to answer that question. There are so many possible reasons why. I’m hoping none of them are that schools are in fact entirely avoiding the acknowledgement of the full range of human sexuality and gender. Because those students are out there. 3-8% of the population are gay and about 1.7% bisexual. Approximately 1% of the population is intersex. Figures for the percentage of transgender people are less certain, with 1/300 a frequently cited figure. And while you can presume asexuality and pansexuality are even more rare, you never know for sure who exactly is in your classroom. Plus of course, in many cases, the kids themselves are still figuring it out (a full 34% of the students responded “don’t know yet” to an in-school survey question about their sexuality that was given by students in my 8th grade Life Skills class).
Besides, many students, even at the middle level, are already aware of the multiplicity of sexualities and genders that actually exist. One of my advisees approached me one day and said, “My father and I were trying to figure out who pansexuals are attracted to. Wouldn’t it basically be everybody?” When we were discussing intersex people in my 8th grade Life Skills class, I mentioned Caster Semenya, and several students called out, “Oh, I’ve heard about her. She’s that South African athlete who they thought might really be a guy.” And when, prior to a performance by Dar Williams, my 7th grade Humanities class was discussing her song “When I Was a Boy,” one of their various interpretations of the lyrics, said without a change in vocal tone or facial expression, was that she might be transgender (an alternate theory, that she might simply have been breaking gender stereotypes, was also given).
I’ll grant you that I work in an unusual place – an independent girls school, proud of its feminist streak, in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, undoubtedly one of the most liberal regions in the country. And of course, what each individual teacher does in the classroom depends on the culture of that school, in that district, in that town. That said, when we celebrate Middle Level Education Month, we need to be celebrating each and every one of our students. They are all special, unique, a gift to the world. They are all deserving of love and respect. And they all deserve to, as Robert McGarry put it, have windows to see the world and mirrors to see themselves. Whomever they may be.