Tag Archives: Acceptance

Finding Resolution

It’s been years since I’ve made New Year’s resolutions. Like many people, I found the process to be at first disheartening and then borderline hypocritical as I fell short time and time again of my goals, then set the bar so low as to be almost meaningless if at least achievable, then gave up the process altogether – without, of course, giving up on the idea of trying to keep learning and growing every year. But somehow, this year, I feel the need to make some sort of year-long commitment. The question is, to what?

With that question still hanging over my head, I settled in on the evening of December 30 for #RuralEdChat on Twitter (archive here). We all exchanged greetings as people continued to join in while noting the various face-to-face goings on around them, and I commented, “Modern Family marathon here (with my family!). I’ll try and multi-task. ;-)” I did a reasonably good job of it, periodically engaging in short bursts of conversation or catching my son’s eye to smile at a particularly good line, while shifting my attention back to the chat and re-engaging frequently enough to read every post and maintain the flow.

The first real question from Tammy Neil, the moderator of the chat, was, “As 2014 comes to a close, what was your most successful memory of this past year? What made it so successful?” I wrote, “Realizing that my Humanities 7 students have focused themselves on social justice nonstop since September.” Indeed, as I’ve written here before, each of our first three units has had a theme question that focuses in one way or another on taking a firmly realistic look at the world and considering what can be done to make it better.

I realize, of course, this isn’t strictly speaking my own success as the kids themselves came up with the starter questions, discussed what their priorities were, negotiated, compromised, and eventually settled on the final theme questions. But before I could get too hard on myself, another chat participant wrote that she didn’t feel personally successful but enjoyed seeing the smiles on her kindergartners. I responded, “You’ll notice my ‘success’ was really my kids’ success. But I helped create that context – as you did in your room!” I think I needed to acknowledge that to myself as much as I needed to share it with her.

Question two was the one I’d been fearing, and for which I was hoping I’d have more time to prepare. I stared at my screen and reread, “Are you a resolution making educator? If so, what resolutions are you making for 2015? Why?” The first part of the question gave me a possible out – and I ended up deciding not to take it. At least, not entirely. I wrote, “Mixed feelings a/b resolutions. But to #bendthearc toward justice is an unceasing and daily priority.” The work I do with my students is indeed a huge part of that – ensuring they know themselves, develop their voices, and work to understand and respect diverse people with diverse perspectives.

But another huge part of bending the arc is constantly working to build a better world for my students to enter as they grow up and graduate. The rest of my day on Twitter speaks to that. I retweeted posts from Melinda D. Anderson (about José Vilson’s blog “We Can Never Turn Our Backs”) and Reni Eddo-Lodge (on an interview with rap star Macklemore) on the vast difference between reactions to black people and white people speaking out against racism and the role white privilege plays in that. I retweeted a post from Tracy Clayton that said, “okay white folks this is important. some of you may already know this and if you do please pass it on to people who don’t.” so that anyone interested in knowing what she had to say could go to her timeline (as I did, encountering a take on white privilege and appropriation that was to the point, thoughtful, and nuanced).

Additionally, I shared Parker Marie Molloy’s tweet grieving the loss of Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teen who had committed suicide and who wrote “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights.” In response, I shared out the names of Jazz Jennings and her mom as great resources (her mom additionally pointing people to her daughter’s excellent Facebook page), and retweeted this posting which was simultaneously heartrending and hopeful: “thank you to all the trans folk posting in #RealLiveTransAdult tag, you guys mean the world to us scared & closeted kids.”

The final question of #RuralEdChat was, “What will you do to make 2015 better (more productive, more positive, etc.) than 2014?” After quite some thought, I responded, “Listen. Read. Listen. Seek to understand. Listen. Clarify. Listen. Share. Listen some more.”And maybe in the end, that’s the key to a workable New Year’s resolution. I have no idea what the year will bring, and thus I have no idea what I’ll need to say and do. But I do know the values I live by. I know my family’s values. I know my school’s values. If I can live every day according to those values, if I can do what I can (no more, but certainly no less) to bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice (to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), I will – hopefully! – be able to view 2015 as a success on the next New Year’s Eve.

Happy new year to all, and may you all find what you are seeking.

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Please and thank you

(Trigger Warning: discussion of suicide)

Although I didn’t grow up watching It’s a Wonderful Life, once I first saw the film as an adult, I could see why it’s become a Christmastime tradition for many people (including some who don’t personally celebrate Christmas). However dark the movie may be in spots, its ultimate affirmation of the notion that each life matters deeply is moving and appealing. As Clarence Oddbody put it, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” (wikiquote)

In the middle of holiday festivities, family gatherings, and time to relax, just as 2015 was fast approaching with the promise of a fresh new year, the untimely death of Leelah Alcorn at only 17 years of age left an awful hole even in the lives of people who never knew her. No angel was able to prevent this tragedy, and so at 2:30 in the morning, she set out from home, walked down the Interstate, and walked in front of a truck. Her grieving parents called for prayers and support, for them and for Leelah’s siblings left behind.

However, that sympathy has not been uniformly forthcoming. In fact, some people are calling for them to be prosecuted. Leelah was transgender and left behind a note indicting her parents for refusing to recognize her true gender and allow her to medically transition, furthermore progressively isolating her from friends and other potential sources of support. Statistics are clear that trans youth who have unsupportive parents are half as likely to be satisfied with their lives as those with supportive parents; only 13% report high self esteem (vs. 65%), while 75% suffer depression (vs. 23%) and 57% have attempted suicide (vs. just 4%). (transstudent.org; link shared by Sophia Banks) Leelah’s parents were conservative Christians, and her mom said in an interview that “We don’t support that, religiously.” (quoted by WCPO)

In no way, of course, do I think that Leelah’s parents represent the entire body of Christianity. Among the families in the Stoneleigh-Burnham community I know to have been most supportive of LGBT people are a good number of Christians. Both of my parents belong to open and accepting Christian churches. One of my friends from high school, a lesbian, is ordained by the United Church of Christ, a denomination that successfully won a suit in North Carolina arguing that same-gender marriage bans were an unconstitutional infringement of freedom of religion.

Neither do I believe Leelah’s parents deserve no sympathy whatsoever. Her mother has stated they loved her unconditionally, and there is no question they are in deep pain. As a parent myself, I can’t help but feel for them. Her father has asked that they be left to grieve in private, and I would never ever think of contacting them directly at such a difficult time in their life, never mind doing so to call them out as some have apparently done.

But the language Leelah’s parents have been using is telling. “We told him that we loved him unconditionally. We loved him no matter what. (…) I loved my son. People need to know that I loved him. He was a good kid, a good boy.” (Carla Alcorn, quoted by WCPO) “We love our son, Joshua, very much and are devastated by his death.” (Doug Alcorn, quoted by WCPO) They have continued to misgender her, calling her a boy and their son, using male pronouns and her male name. In our society, your name and your gender are among the most fundamental parts of your identity – and Leelah’s parents continually denied and continue to deny her the basic human right to express that identity as she saw herself.

While suicide is clearly a deep concern specifically within the transgender community, it is also the third most frequent cause of death for all teenagers of all genders. It’s important to know the warning signs, and to be aware of resources on which we can draw, including suicide hotlines and trans support hotlines. Moreover, we need to be aware of the intersections between a given person’s gender, sexuality, race, class, age, and abledness, the better to clearly see them as they are and be able to listen to their story and give them the support they need.

Leelah’s note ended: “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. (…) Fix society. Please.”

And thank you.

photo(25)

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Filed under Current Events, Gender, On Education, On Parenting, Uncategorized

Leading the Way

This year’s People of Color Conference (whose hashtag is #PoCC14), sponsored by the National Association of Independent Schools, comes at a critical juncture in our country’s history. I woke up on the morning of December 5 to read a tweet from @racialicious telling about what a good time they were having. Reading through their timeline, I discovered many powerful thoughts and ideas posted the previous day, and vowed to follow their live tweeting of the keynote address, to be given by Dr. Derald Wing Sue. Dr. Sue is a noted expert on multicultural counseling, and has written and edited several books including Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact.

As it happens, I have used Dr. Sue’s work in my own teaching. Two years ago, when I was teaching Life Skills 8, the students and I spent some time talking about prejudice of different types, how it operates in day-to-day life, and what can be done about it. We watched the video “Microaggressions in Everyday Life.” They learned that microaggressions typically happen when a well-intentioned person lacks knowledge of how specific expressions or behaviors might be experienced by a historically marginalized person. For example, if a girl likes math, telling her enthusiastically, “Wow, that’s great!” might actually be experienced by her as a microaggression, communicating the idea that it is surprising when a girl likes math. No offense was meant, but offense might still have been taken. Another approach might simply be to ask her what she likes best about it, which would still acknowledge and support her love of math without adding the element of surprise. Our class had some great discussions on the topic.

In reporting on Dr. Sue’s address to the #PoCC14, @racialicious wrote in part:

  • DWS: Master Narrative (White ppl talking); democratic society, post-racial, racism is thing of past, not responsible for past sins. #PoCC14
  • DWS: Master Narrative– Truth and justice will prevail, equal access is hallmark of society. #PoCC14
  • DWS: The Counter Narrative (POC narrative): Meritocracy is a myth, system rigged against POCs, white privilege exists, #PoCC14
  • DWS: The Counter Narrative: we are taught that some groups are lesser beings, no one is immune from inheriting biases from society #PoCC14
  • Master narrative is rehearsed in society, and taught in schools. Counter narrative is not. #PoCC14
  • DWS: The Master Narrative a) reassures whites they are good, b) prevents them from being conscious of biased conditioning. #PoCC14
  • DWS: c) Maintains their innocence and naivete, d) perpetuates the racial status quo. #PoCC14

All of this provides the context for microaggressions, which can lead students to question themselves under the daily assault (@racialicious).

So what should schools be doing? One obvious strategy is to present both the master and counter narratives. Whether we use that terminology or not, and of course maintaining respect for the full spectrum of political beliefs, we can certainly study and talk of varying visions of and for our country and how we self-define. We can also teach about microaggressions, how to respond to them, and how to respond if one has committed a microaggression and has it pointed out. In the videotape my students watched, Dr. Sue recommended people maintain constant vigilance, hold an awareness that different people may have different experiences of the same reality, not be defensive, remain open to discussion, and be an ally.

I have just begun reading If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson to my Humanities 7 class. As a multiracial high school couple falls more and more deeply into love, Ellie (who is white) learns more and more about how Miah (who is black) experiences the world and what that means for her view of our culture. I can not believe that students are not going to bring up the examples of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, though of course if they don’t, I can add questions into the mix that will at least get them thinking about the issues underlying those and countless other cases, in the process exploring their own thoughts on the master and counter narratives.

Chris Rock has observed that his daughters are “encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced.” If I compare my students (of all races) to my friends and me (of all races) at their age, they are certainly more aware and more accepting of diversity, if – to be fair – no less well intentioned. We are definitely making steady progress as a culture. Slow, but steady.

But slow.

The thing is, as Dr. Sue said, the master narrative can be used to justify inaction on the part of white people (@racialicious). Time and time again, we have raised our collective voices in national outrage at what is commonly perceived as injustice (many people across the political spectrum were stunned at the grand jury’s decision in the Eric Garner case), but time and time again, things eventually quiet down with no real change taking place.

That quite simply must not continue to happen.

Hopefully, my students will be among those leading the way. It would not surprise me one bit if they did.

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A Very Good Place to Start: On Teaching for Respect

“Excuse me, ma’am?” I turned to see a woman approaching me as I sat working at Rao’s coffee shop. “Yes?” I said. “Can you please give me directions to (we’ll say it was La Veracruzana)?” I did, and she thanked me, acknowledged my “You’re welcome,” and turned and left. Clearly, she was either open or oblivious to the contrast between whatever it was about my appearance (hair? clothing? something else?) that had caused her to “ma’am” me and my baritone voice. Myself, at this point in my life, I respond naturally to either “ma’am” or “sir,” reasoning that in either case, someone is addressing me respectfully.

Respect is the key word here. It’s what underlies most successful human interactions, and what is most often missing when dysfunction takes over. It’s a firm underlying principle in each of my classes. I expect respect not only for each other (which they almost invariably show anyway) but also for fictional characters, reasoning that if we are generally talking about them as if they were real, we might as well carry it to the logical extreme.

Of course, respect for people who are transgender or otherwise gender transgressive is not an automatic given in this world. Indeed, as of 2012, transgender people were 28% more likely than cisgender people to experience physical attacks, and the situation was even more dire for trans women of colour, who make up a wildly disproportionate and depressing 87% of the cases where those attacks escalate to murder. (Bolles) Many white people who are members of or allied with the transgender community recognize and deplore this fact.

International Transgender Day of Remembrance takes place on Nov. 20 and once again, I attended the Northampton service. In welcoming us, Yohah Ralph acknowledged the difficulty and weight of the accumulated tragedy of over 220 transgender people having been killed this year, some of whom were never identified, some of whose families never knew or cared. He asked that, to keep the atmosphere from weighing us down too much, each participant in the service speak about their dream for the future. Most said their dream was for everyone, regardless of gender, to be able to live freely and without fear as their authentic selves.

That shouldn’t be asking too much.

The Stonewall Center of the University of Massachusetts was a co-sponsoring organization of this year’s TDOR, and the Director, Genny Beemyn, said that their own dream was that we wouldn’t be gathering together next year. They acknowledged that was virtually certain not to be, nor was it likely to be for many decades to come.

You may have picked up on the use of the pronoun “they,” and that is indeed Genny’s preferred pronoun. In Humanities 7 class one day, the question of whether “they” could be singular came up. Some students were firmly advocating that it had to be plural, while one other was quietly if hesitantly demurring. Thinking that she might possibly know a trans person (here in the Valley, the odds are definitely higher than in many parts of the country) who preferred the pronoun “they,” I stepped in to support her, stating that while “they” had traditionally been plural (this to acknowledge the good intentions of students arguing that point), people of different genders were in fact increasingly choosing to use it as a singular pronoun. She smiled back at me as several other students paused to give me a curious look. I nodded to affirm my statement, everyone relaxed, and we all moved on.

If we are truly to work toward a world that embraces people of all genders, it will be built through the gradual accumulation of respectful calls for respect, respectfully received. Hopefully, my students will help lead the way as they grow into adulthood and find their place in the world. It would not surprise me for a second if they do.

After all, living life as your authentic self is at the core of our mission, and respect is at the heart of each element of our honor code.

That is a very good place to start.

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Trans 101.5

Transgender Awareness Month comes right on the heels of National Bullying Prevention Month, and in many ways that makes sense, as transgender people are disproportionately affected by bullying (as with street violence). GLSEN reports that fully 82% of LGBT kids have had problems with bullying, 44% specifically due to gender identification (reported on the nobullying.com website). GLSEN’s 2013 National Climate survey is available by download for anyone who might be interested.

In an age where definitions of different genders are becoming as fluid as some people’s sense of gender itself, it can be hard to keep up with the latest terms. For starters, (biological) sex is not the same as (social) gender, and 1-2% of people are born neither female nor male but rather intersex. Additionally, even though “transgender” refers to someone whose gender identity differs from that assigned to them at birth, not everyone who might fit that definition automatically chooses to identify as transgender. Moreover, though some transgender people (such as noted teen activist Jazz Jennings, here in an interview with Katie Couric) feel they were always girls trapped in a boy’s body or boys trapped in a girl’s body, not all transgender people feel that way or even identify within the gender binary. Partially blurring the binary are bigender people and androgynes, and within the Native American tradition, two-spirit people. But other transgender people might identify as polygender, agender, genderqueer, or just plain nonbinary, and still others avoid terminology altogether. Some may have a stable gender identity while others might be more fluid. Facebook, as many people know by now, offers a menu of over 50 gender choices, and even then, it is not 100% comprehensive.

Currently, among the most common pronoun choices used by trangender people are he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/them/theirs, and ze/hir/hirs. As with gender itself, though, there are a wealth of pronoun choices that exist. The only way to know what pronouns a transgender person uses is for them to tell you. It’s certainly okay to politely ask; many colleges routinely do so now during Orientation and in the day-to-day of their offices.

Because of the acronym “LGBT,” people often assume trans people are not heterosexual, but your gender actually has nothing to do with your sexuality. Transgender people can be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, asexual (both romantic and aromantic), and any other variety of sexuality of which you can think.

In a recent talk at Mount Holyoke on her life as a trans woman, Jennifer Finney Boylan told listeners, “Let your story be known. It’s impossible to hate anyone whose story you know.” Ms. Boylan walks the talk, having published a number of beautifully written and at times painfully honest books on her life including the iconic She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders and the sequels I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted: A Memoir and Stuck in the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders. For people looking for books for younger readers, Luna by Julie Anne Peters is the fictional story of a transgender teen told from the point of view of her younger sister, and I am Jazz, written by Jazz Jennings along with Jessica Herthel and based on Jazz’s own life, is the story of a transgender girl written for elementary-age children. As transgender people are becoming more visible, so too are choices of good books about transgender people becoming more common.

Though I don’t personally identify as transgender, I do have a vague sense of what it might be like. My own gender expression, as I’ve written before, is essentially a projection of my authentic self, kept as free of gender typing as possible, into a heavily gendered world. In that world, some people see me and greet me with warm and genuine smiles. Others laugh out loud, cringe with discomfort, or look me over with disgust. Still others simply treat me as they would any other person. The result is that I sometimes feel both relaxed and on guard. Relaxed, because I’m comfortable both with the look and with the effect of shaking up gender norms. On guard, because I never know when things might suddenly and without warning turn ugly.

Those emotions should be incompatible.

Patriarchy is why they aren’t.

So in the end, as with so much in this world, it all comes down to respect. Respecting each other’s personal sense of our own gender identity and the associated gender expression we choose. Respecting the terminology we each choose to use. Respecting the possibility of good intentions behind the occasional slip-up. And ultimately, respecting our joint and fundamental humanity.

No matter what gender we might be.

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Preventing Bullying

“You’re not wearing a blue shirt.” The comment, coming from a Junior in her own blue shirt, was something of a test, and I got partial credit by cringing and saying, “Oh, no! I totally forgot!” At least my response showed I knew that wearing a blue shirt on that particular Monday was meant to draw attention to National Bullying Prevention Month. I did manage to wear purple on GLAAD Spirit Day to take “a stand against bullying and show [my] support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth” (GLAAD), and kept a blue pinky for a week in response to a tweet by @beinggirl; my photo even earned a retweet from the “Secret Mean Stinks” campaign, among others.

For the Humanities 7 unit on “Why do people judge other people and themselves?” one of my students did her individual Focus Question work on bullying. She designed her presentation as much to stimulate conversation as to present information, and she succeeded admirably: the discussion lasted over 45 minutes and might have continued even longer if class hadn’t ended. The students were not without empathy for bullies, coming quickly to general agreement that often, they simply didn’t know better because that was how they were treated, or perhaps they had deep-seated issues of their own and the bullying had nothing to do with the actual victims.

That said, victims of bullying definitely got the most sympathy, all the more so because, as it turned out, some of the students in my class had been bullied at their old schools. Those who chose to tell their stories were met with respectful, rapt, sympathetic attention, and some of them showed tremendous courage and trust in sharing details of what had been said and done to them. Empathy for what the bullies may have been through took a definite back seat to empathy for their classmates, and I’m sure many of them were thinking what one student said out loud: “I’m just so glad I don’t have to worry about bullying at Stoneleigh-Burnham.”

I’m not pretending our school is perfect. As human beings, we all succumb at times to moments of weakness, or trip up on highly inelegant phrasing, and feelings can at times be hurt. But if such moments happen in a relationship that has already put down some roots, it’s easier to work through those moments. Flipping through my Twitter feed today, I stumbled on research that suggested the more a teacher can create an environment where students feel genuinely safe, the more those students will learn and grow. That makes intuitive sense, and I always view creating that level of safety as a moral imperative.

The stopbullying.gov webpage offers some great ideas for preventing bullying before it even starts, and handling it should it happen. These range from media guidelines to specific ideas for parents, educators, the community, teens, and kids. With respect as the basis behind all these suggestions, the more we work to keep our kids safe, the more we’ll be working for a better world.

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Filed under On Education, On Parenting, The Faculty Perspective, Uncategorized

“Are you in or out?”

(title credit from a song in the Disney movie Aladdin and the King of Thieves)

It’s a question 90% of us or more never have to ask. People who are both heterosexual and cisgender (essentially, being comfortable in a gender identity that matches the sex written down on our original birth certificate) never have to go in the closet in the first place. For the rest of us, though, the question may be somewhat stickier. And on National Coming Out Day every year, while some people come out or reflect on and celebrate their earlier coming out, others contemplate it, and still others hold tight to the door’s handle to ensure it remains firmly closed.

It’s a given, of course, that absolutely no one has the right to force the door open for anyone else. And it’s equally a given that when a person comes out to selected people, they need to respect if that person wants to remain closeted in other places. Family dynamics, workplace atmosphere, local cultural attitudes, and more can all can make it more or less risky to come out, and none of those contexts is absolutely uniform across all members of a given community.

Robert Eichberg and Jean O’Leary founded National Coming Out Day on October 11, 1988, to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. (Wikipedia) On that date in 2013, The Atlantic published an article by Preston Mitchum entitled “On National Coming Out Day, Don’t Disparage the Closet.” He observed, “The coming out experience can be a precarious time in a person’s life, particularly when one belongs to multiple marginalized communities.” He acknowledges that “Ultimately, coming out is important because it makes the LGBT community more visible, particularly for black LGBT individuals…” but adds that “… focusing so intensely on coming out places the burden on the individual to brave society rather than on society to secure the safety of the individual.”

So how do we secure the safety of the individual? In particular, how can that happen when some religious traditions believe homosexuality is a sin and we also want to respect each person’s individual freedom of religion and their personal beliefs? The question takes me back many years ago to when I was teaching elsewhere, and one of the teachers assigned a project in which kids were to make a poster showing their own personal nine circles of Hell. One student placed homosexuals in her fifth circle, and as several of the students had gay or lesbian parents (no student had, to my knowledge, come out at that point in time), the faculty were concerned. One teacher agreed to talk to her, and it turned out that, while she did indeed hold the religious belief that homosexuality was a sin, she also felt (again, for religious reasons) that every single person deserved to be treated with love and respect.

We have seen the benefits over time of gays and lesbians coming out, serving as examples, and clearing the way for others, and we are currently seeing what seems to be the beginning of such a pattern among the gender non-conforming. Yet, not all of us were cut out to play that role, and we each need to make the best possible decision for ourselves in our own personal circumstances. With that in mind, if our entire country can agree to hold the core values that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and everyone is also entitled to be treated respectfully, that can be the starting point as we move forward toward the ultimate goal that all of us act upon those core values to the very best of our ability.

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