Tag Archives: LGBT

Out of the Margins

“So how do your students look this year?” The question was asked not, as many people might expect, by a colleague or even a parent but by three of my former students who are now juniors as we found a chance to talk at the annual Local Family Picnic. “They look great,” I said. “Of course. You know! Given the emails they’ve been writing me about the books they’ve been reading.” One of them laughed and said, “Your favourite Humanities 7 class of 2014-2015?” I laughed in return, responding “Absolutely!” knowing she was secure in the knowledge they were all part of my favourite Humanities 7 class of… 2010-2011. (For the record, I only teach one section of Humanities 7 each year, so the “favourite Humanities 7 class of…” line is something of a running joke.)

As I prepare for the imminent arrival on campus of my brand new students, as the middle school team prepares to bring together and start building this year’s community, I find myself focused not just on what the kids might be thinking and feeling but also on the parents. My son attended boarding school for three years and is about to start his junior year at college, so I know firsthand what parents are going through. The level of trust we parents place in a school when dropping off our children is powerfully and deeply touching, and part of what motivates me to do my absolute best each and every day is working to meet that trust (not that I need any more motivation than looking out at my students looking back at me!).

So it stopped me short when one of my virtual colleagues on Twitter, another teacher who is also a parent, wrote, “My son had nightmares of police killing him….when he walks in your classroom how will you comfort him? #Ferguson” That I would do something is unquestionable. The harder part is the what. I wrote back, “I keep searching for the answer to that. Empathy and a hug only go so far. Think of concrete actions we can take to fight racism?” I believe that kids, perhaps even more so than adults, want to feel they have some degree of control over the world around them. While we will never live in a perfect world, we can certainly work to move society towards greater understanding, inclusiveness, and acceptance. And including my friend’s child in coming up with ways to do so would hopefully help him feel more empowered.

My imminent students may or may not have had such nightmares, but certainly they must have some level of awareness of and concern over what has been going on in Ferguson. And every year I’ve ever taught Humanities 7, whatever might have been going on in the world, stereotypes have always been a hot topic at some point in the year, including racism, sexism, heterosexism, and more or less any other type of ism of which you could think. With 7th graders’ heightened sense of fairness and drive to bring justice about, we always end up brainstorming and discussing what people can actually do. Knowing concrete actions to take can be comforting.

Another of my virtual teacher-parent colleagues is expecting her first child, and she found herself in need of comforting post-Ferguson as well. Among the links and resources we shared in reaching out to her was a video made by Glenn Singleton, “Courageous Conversations About Race.” It offers both some background information not everyone may know and a protocol to frame these conversations. The video, which takes about 22 minutes to watch, is an incredible resource for schools, other organizations, and people in general who want to help undermine the systemic racism that feeds stereotypes both deliberate and unwitting, people who want to move forward.

And really, moving forward is not an option but a necessity. That doesn’t mean it’s easy – besides systemic racism, we all have to deal with the effects of patriarchy on attitudes toward gender and sexuality, of classism on attitudes toward socioeconomic status, and so on. The intersections of all the various axes of privilege and oppression play out differently in different people, making each individual story matter deeply. So listening, learning, affirming, and acting are all important parts of the process. Moreover, as a global community wherein each of us is working to become our own best self, they are quite literally part of our school’s mission.

My friend who asked about her son wrote me, “thank you for the response. I appreciate it greatly. #village” It does indeed take a village. And that village is us.

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

Breaking the Silence

Tires screech as a car full of teenage boys swings around to get a closer look, barely decipherable bellowed comments ringing across the parking lot. I clutch my small bag of groceries a little more tightly, willing myself to maintain a blank face and an even pace, wishing for the first time in a number of years that I didn’t enjoy parking far away from the store entrance so I could get in a bit of a walk. My stomach clenches with the familiar tension, and I wait for the usual relaxation. It doesn’t come. And suddenly I know why.

It had been many years since I had been mistaken for a woman and subjected to random drive-by harassment. The last time it happened, I had been reasonably confident that once they realized I wasn’t female, they would drive off, perhaps getting in one last parting shot, and leave me alone to think on the notion that actual women don’t have that comforting expectation. This time, however, I had a new awareness of both the numbers of transgender people and the constant danger they are in. If these kids were to decide that their having mistaken me for a woman meant I had crossed some gender line and deserved to be beaten up or worse, there wasn’t going to be much I could do about it.

The whole incident didn’t last more than half a minute but has stuck with me. No group of people is at more risk for being subjected to hate crimes and violence than transgender people, as the litany of a spreadsheet on the Transgender Day of Remembrance website attests: Strangled. Shot and dragged. Stoned, beaten and burned. Stabbed. Shot to death by her brother. Shot. Shot. Shot… For many years, I have had something of a sense of what it’s like to be a woman and subjected to drive-by harassment. Now I have also something of a sense of what it’s like to be transgender and live with the awareness that at any moment, without warning, life as you know it could end.

The other day, one of my Humanities 7 students did a brilliant presentation on the blink effect. In the time it takes to blink, she told us, you form your first impression of people and make your first judgment. Very often, students and classes wrestling with this concept will use the information to affirm the need to be aware of the blink effect and work hard to get past that moment and genuinely get to know people as they really are. This student took it one level deeper. She had found a plastic surgeon’s site that attempted to convince people that the best way to combat the blink effect was to do everything possible to ensure that your own personal body and face led to positive judgments the split second people meet you. She was, quite properly, outraged. The best way to combat the blink effect, she stated, was to stop caring what other people think of how you look and just feel good the way you are. The class was completely in agreement.

How much better our world would be if more people would work not only to overcome their own tendency to make quick judgments but also to strengthen themselves against the quick judgments of others.

Yet, as I make that statement, and even though I believe deeply in its truth, I have the uncomfortable sense that it’s still not enough. Far too many voices have been permanently silenced simply because of who those people are and the snap judgments people have made about them – and not just transgender people, of course. Far too many additional voices are effectively silenced as people hide their true selves. And we are living in times when legislation has actually been proposed permitting harassing, hateful speech as long as the speaker can claim a religious basis to their statements. I know there are people whose religious beliefs are that LGBT people will not go to heaven, and of course I accept and even support their right to those beliefs. But I cannot support that (fortunately much smaller) subset of people who use religion as an excuse to deny people their fundamental human right to respect.

All that being said, we are also living in times when gay marriage has become acceptable to the majority of Americans, where the visibility of transgender people is on the rise, where gay people (if not yet transgender people) can both serve their country and be open about who they are. And we are living in times when young people are growing up more aware than ever of the rich diversity of people around them, more inclined to respect that diversity, and more inclined to affirm themselves in the face of those who are less respectful. So on this year’s Day of Silence, I give thanks for progress being made and for my students’ part in that progress, and I recommit to working toward a day when the Day of Silence is no longer needed and only exists in history books.

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Filed under Gender, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective