My writing tonight should not be about me. While I recognize the irony that centering myself while trying to unpack adult privilege is laughable at best, disrespectful at worst, I cannot think of a way to tackle this conversation without centering my personal experiences to reveal how eternally flawed I am. While I wish this writing tonight was not about me, as I’ve been quite conflicted with the notion of adult privilege usurping the agency of youth lately, and to be honest, I’m kind of sick of hearing my own voice, it will, unfortunately, be about me, as I’ve no one but myself to take responsibility for my actions, or rather, inaction.
What’s shaken me to the core and has struck me so deeply is this: the humbling effect I felt today from the words of an insightful fifth-grader. His words and those of his classmates, in fact. Twice he and his classmates humbled me with their insight and forced me to reexamine truths I’d either thought I’d come to terms with or didn’t even recognize I needed to consider. Let me give you a bit of context within which to center your image of me (yikes, a scary notion to be so transparent to you my reader, but alas, a necessary process). I am a cisgender mama of a young visible transgender son who is an educator by trade. If you know me today, you may think what I’m about to confess to you isn’t possible. And I thank you for your belief in me. If you don’t know me, well then, you’ll be getting a window into the humility one goes through as they journey along the path of transition with a young child and try to make sense of the world around them.
Ready for a few confessions? Bet you are, so let’s get started.
Confession One: I am guilty of exactly the kind of shameful behavior this young fifth-grader expressed was unjust toward kids. That’s painful to name and seeing it in print right now makes me want to cry. But, if we can’t look truth in the face and grabble with it, how will we ever learn to revise ourselves? I’ll explore his assertion further after I state it and then state my confession two. His assertion: Parents shouldn’t have the right to decide their children’s destiny and the life they will have.
Confession Two: I am responsible for not seeing my own adult privilege after a year’s worth of shedding skin and revising my notion of self. Even after spending ten months researching such notions of identity, privilege, power, and oppression. Even after nine days of intense research in one fifth grade classroom exploring these very notions in-depth, I didn’t see my own privilege as an adult. I’ve no excuse for this. I accept responsibility for my own unknowing and now recognize growing pains cut. And they cut deeply. I revise myself once again.
Now that I’ve admitted my two truths (the most recent truths of which there have been many lately) they feel really big and really raw. I’ll attempt to unpack each and then try to reconcile my soul with a reflection on what I’m trying desperately to do about it to shift this narrative.
Tackle One: The Wise Words of Youth Forcing a Revision of Self
The fifth-graders and their amazing teacher, Ms. J, that I have been studying with this year, have been doing deep work at unpacking the notion of identity and empathy through characters they study in books read in class. It’s been a beautiful process to be a collaborator with this teacher this year and I’ve learned so much as a researcher, educator, mama, and human being. In their most recent book exploration, Alex Gino’s George, they are studying the identity of a young transgender girl. A scene in the book today struck the children and elicited a poignant response from the fifth-grader. A bit of context about the scene in the book: the trans girl, Melissa, was caught by her mother possessing magazines that centered on teen girls. Her mother accused her of stealing the magazines and questioned why she’d even want to have them. She went on to shame Melissa by telling her she wasn’t to enter her room and not dare to ever wear her clothes again, as she did when she was younger. As Melissa tried to explain herself, knowing the truth that her mother still saw her as a boy and not her authentic self as a transgender girl, her mother silenced her and shut down the lines of communication between the two of them. As the teacher read this scene today, her student’s reactions were terribly raw: so many faces of shock, disgust, and confusion as to how the mother could treat her child this way and how an adult could silence a child in just a mere few reactionary words. Students expressed a feeling of being scared for Melissa, confusion as to why the mother didn’t understand her child, and then the kindest young fifth-grader, with his black-rimmed glasses and eager smile, suggested this reality: “It’s not her decision what her child is supposed to be—she gave birth to George [Melissa] but it’s not her decision to hold George’s [Melissa] destiny and what life George [Melissa] will have.” Mic drop. There is was. Truth from a fifth-grader. And, my shame.
When my child first began to express himself with more masculine characteristics in first grade, my initial response was one along the lines of, Oh babe, that’s wonderful. Girls can do anything boys can do. Just because you want to dress like a boy and cut your hair, just because you are powerfully talented at Jujitsu and take down any boy twice your age with your master skills at the armbar move, just because you want to wear rash guards and swim trunks instead of a one-piece swimsuit, just because you can’t answer the question of what your favorite princess is at a birthday party but can rattle off your most favorite dinosaur at the drop of a hat, you can be all these things as an empowered young lady who knows who she is and fights back against the societal genderized notions of what girls are supposed to be. Right on, babe, girl power…you’re gonna be a woke feminist like your mama…
Ugh, that was my mindset for a bit of time, when my child first began on their path of realizing their authentic self. And believe me, admitting this truth now feels really uncomfortable. And it should. And likewise, I should be made to confront it and own it and never forget where I came from. It’s my history, my shameful truth. I live with that, but tuck it away somewhere deep inside. Today, however, I was made to confront it once again upon hearing these simple words from this insightful fifth-grader. My initial approach for a few weeks upon my child, trying to explore their authentic self as a first-grader, was one of trying to hold onto the fact that my child was born a girl, therefore, was supposed to be a girl and that my child’s gender destiny was determined by biology and my mindful guidance through childhood to be an empowered, kick-ass girl, but girl none-the-less. Damn, I don’t even recognize that self of four years ago. But she existed for a bit of time and I have to own that painful truth.
It doesn’t matter that when my child finally approached me and said it was more than just expression and affinity, it was who they knew they were and the fact that I jumped right in with both feet to become the biggest advocate for my child. It doesn’t matter that I’ve revised my narrative in powerful ways, becoming my child’s consummate accomplice on this journey of self-discovery. That does matter, but what also matters is the fact that at first, I got it wrong. I lived for a short time with what this fifth grader warned against: I thought I should have the right to decide my child’s gender destiny. Truthfully, I never named it in this way for myself, but my words, actions, and inaction to shift swiftly all supported this truth. And for this truth of four years ago, I’m eternally flawed.
Tackle Two: The Oppression of Unchecked Adult Privilege Forcing a Revision of Self
Let’s return to the classroom I was a part of today. In revisiting the context of the classroom, where the students were reflecting together upon the scene between the mother and child, the teacher proceeded to skillfully facilitate this conversation, sensing her students needed to further unpack ideas underlying this scene and this student’s assertion that parents shouldn’t have the right to decide their children’s destiny. She stated that adults should listen to kids so they feel heard and understood. She noted that in this scene, as in life, society would see adults as having more power and the mother wasn’t even listening to her child at that moment. She asked her class this question, “Does that happen with adults in life and how do we change the mindset of cisgender adults?”
And that’s when one student pointed out this glaringly troubling fact: “Hey, we should add adults and children to our ladder of privilege.” Shocked, the teacher and I look at one another with such shame in our hearts. Umm, yeah, of course. That probably should have been one of the first identity pairings we’d explored with her students. How in the world could we not have seen the need to add the identities of adults and children to our ladder of privilege? Well, because it was our blind privilege to our status as adults that we didn’t even see the need to add this identity. To make it even more shameful, we facilitated student’s working through of this chart over the past few days, with the idea of where society would place these multiple identities through the lens of an adult who embodied the identity, not a child. Damn, how adult-centric that was, right? We just shook our heads and said, “Oh yes, of course, let’s add these identities to the chart.” Upon reflecting on this tonight, we probably also missed an opportunity to express to her students our own biases illustrated by the fact that we did not even recognize the need to include adult and child identities on the chart. But, we didn’t name it for her students. Perhaps next time as we revise the exploration, and revise ourselves, we will.
And consider this: we wonder why the main character’s adult (mother) in the book George didn’t see her authentic self, didn’t listen to her and silenced her through words and actions. Well, isn’t that what we had just done to these fifth graders as we talked about this entire conversation of privilege, power, and oppression from the perspective of the adult identity? So irresponsible we’ve been, I now embarrassingly recognize. So, once we quickly regrouped, Ms. J asked her students to consider where they thought society would place the identity of adult and child on the ladder of privilege we’d been constructing across the past couple of days. Children expressed the consensus that the adult identity should be placed at a ‘5’ denoting that adults have all the power. Students then expressed the notion that children should be placed around the ‘2’ because “we can’t do anything and have no ability to go where we want to and are always being told what to do.”
And that’s when the kind young man, with the black-rimmed glasses, said this, “But wait, what about children of privilege, wouldn’t they be placed higher on the ladder of privilege than just ‘regular’ children?” Umm, wait, say what? Ms. J tried to clarify what he was asking. Meanwhile, I dropped my note-taking pen while simultaneously dropping my jaw to the floor. I looked intently at Ms. J with frantic eyes reflecting the notions that I think this child was beginning to edge toward. She asked me to clarify his question and then asked me to proceed with this part of guiding her classes’ exploration of thought. And here’s what unfolded, that with which I will carry through my adult self forevermore.
I asked this young man if he meant that those children with privilege are already placed higher in the ladder of privilege by right of birth? He said, yep. I then turned the conversation over to the entire class by posing this question, “If you all agree that privileged children begin life at a more privileged place on the ladder with more opportunity and power, where would you place them? And think carefully, because where you decide as a class to have your teacher write the phrase ‘privileged children’ is going to make a huge statement.” I’m not sure they knew the huge statement I was referring to, but you do, right? After much discussion with partners, here is where the identities of adults, children, and privileged children were placed on the ladder of societal privilege. Take a long while to study this image below if it’s your first time seeing it. If you’ve read my previous writings, focus on the blue marker.
These thirty-four fifth-graders from a Title 1 school in the middle of a large urban city, placed the identity of privileged children above children. But even more poignantly problematic to my mind is who else that identity was above: adult people of color, adult women, homosexual and transgender adults, and uneducated, old, poor adults. Wow. “Children of privilege are born into their parent’s privilege,” was the consensus as to why the class placed them at a ‘3’ above all these other adult identities. A child of privilege, at their status as a child, has more privilege, power, and access to opportunities than me, than you, and most everyone I know. That’s the raw truth. And not untrue, right? Sit with this truth that children of color just named for us. (Ms. J and I did. We also reflected upon our national election and many revelations became clear. I bet you see them, too. Damn).
So, that’s where I’ve ended up tonight: lost in my own thoughts, my own adult privilege, in my reflection of my own flawed old presumption of adult’s power over their children’s gender destiny, in my own shock at how this ladder of privilege turned out. I intend to explore this ladder of privilege study more in future writings, but for tonight, I sit here staring at it. I can’t seem to take my eyes off the image and the implications. It truly haunts me. I know it haunts you, too. How can it not?
I did mention at the beginning of this thought piece that I’d add a reflection at the end on what I’m trying desperately to do about these confessions I’ve named. Well, I’m living my life in revision. Revision of thought, of words, of actions. It’s really all I can do at this point. Be willing to live hard, study hard, act hard upon what I have control over in the small spaces of my life. This doesn’t seem satisfying to you, does it? I apologize if you feel this way. I kind of do, too. But, it’s my truth right now. I intentionally live my life open to revising myself daily if it means I learn to live justly on behalf of my trans son and his peers. It’s small, but I think powerful. If we were all open to living life in such revision, just think about what we could achieve collectively. I’ll leave you with this last thought from a wise mentor of mine: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others. I want to go far to outgrown my best self, so I’ll need others with me. Won’t you join my journey and allow it to intertwine with yours? Together, we’ll go much further hand in hand.
Published with permission from an educator ally, who is also a mother of a young trans child in our advocacy network. -C