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Living Life in Revision

“I am saying that a journey is called that because you cannot know what you will discover on the journey, what you will do with what you find or what you find will do to you” –James Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro.

Disclaimer: this reflection is not going to make much sense tonight because the world doesn’t make much sense to me tonight, either. If you’re okay with that and have time to read about 4000 words from my mind and heart that are trying so desperately to make sense of the incomprehensible world within which we all live right now, beautiful, then keep on reading. I welcome you. If you’re not into reading an exploratory thought-piece tonight, believe me, I totally get it and won’t be offended in the least if you cease reading on; I won’t even really ever know.

If you’ve stuck around, here it is: I’m on a journey, a journey of living life in revision, both metaphorically and literally. But aren’t we all, whether we recognize it or not? Andrew Solomon, in his seminal book Far From the Tree, speaks about vertical and horizontal identities. For vertical identities, think of those traits often aligned, not always, but often aligned between parents and their children: skin color, hair color, body type, and so on. For horizontal identities, however, think of those pieces of children’s identities perhaps not reflected in their biological parent’s identities: gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and so on. He asserts parents of children whose vertical identities match their own tend to have a deeper lived experience with their children around these identities; they often understand what it’s like to live a life in that same identity. On the other hand, he argues it’s trickier for parents raising children who have identities that are not reflected in their own, horizontal identities like being a prodigy or identifying as a transgender person. Why am I talking about this tonight? Well, because I am raising a child with a horizontal identity to my own: I am a mother of a young visible transgender child. Please know this truth, one of many truths that I’ll reveal to you tonight: I write this thought piece tonight to open a window into our journey for you. I am trusting that you will be responsible with what you read and learn from me tonight, as writing so personally as I intend to is an act of sheer vulnerability.

And now, I invite you to journey alongside me. You’ve stuck around this long, so you should get my personal invitation, right? It’s a painfully raw journey and I won’t represent it as anything other than such. If you’re open to rawness tonight, let me bring you along. If you aren’t in a mindset for that tonight, come back to me when you are, I’ll be here waiting patiently. I’ve but time.

I am staring at this blank page below now. It’s full of possibilities, full of hope really. Sorry, though, you won’t get that from me, not tonight at least. These feelings do not match my heart tonight. I hesitate to even write further right now, as I feel really raw. I feel too heartbroken. And enraged. And disappointed in humanity, too. But, maybe this is the ideal time to write so you can live my reality uncensored, unedited, untouched by the clarity of the new day’s sun. Perhaps, but I don’t really know.

I usually write in the comfy space of my hallway “office”: a tiny desk space carved out of the long hallway that attaches the front of my home to the back. But, not tonight. Tonight, I’m on my laptop lying in bed, feeling too emotionally weary to sit in my usual writer’s stance. So, as I lay here trying to make sense of my mind and my heart, I look to my right. Beside me is my sleeping five-year-old. Yep, he’s still at the young snuggly age that when he has a bad dream, he comes tromping down the aforementioned long hallway, blankies in hand (of which there are five, no joke) ready to snuggle in beside me for comfort. Often, he then ends up sticking around until the wee hours of the morning when the sun cracks through the blinds of my two bedroom windows. If you’ve raised young kids, you remember those days, right? My kid will get some great sleep; me on the other hand, well, I’ll end up relegated to the edge of the bed, fighting to commandeer some blankets back, and trying not to get whacked in the head by a flailing arm as he shifts his sleeping position for the twentieth time. Ha, you get it. And, I want you to know this about my life right now. Why you might be wondering. Why would I want you to know this about my life? Because. I want you to know me, rather, know my story. As I’ve young children who deserve my protection from the harshness of visibility, you’ll only know of me through the written words of my stories, you understand and respect this, right? And here’s why I want you to know me through my stories: because I want to know your stories, too. I want to know you better. And I understand that’s probably not possible as the anonymity of the internet enables you to know me without me ever knowing of your existence. And I’m alright with this. Here’s why: think of the “you” and “me” in more of a metaphorical sense. I want you to know me through my stories because I hold the belief that we need to share our stories with one another.

James Baldwin said the following words in the documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, and they hit me in a very raw way tonight: “Apathy and ignorance, which is the price for segregation, that’s what segregation means: you don’t know what is happening on the other side of the wall cause you don’t want to know.” I want to know what is happening on the other side of the wall and I hope that you seek that knowledge and understanding, too. We need to know one another at deeper levels. We need to have shared experiences with people around us that look like us and don’t look like us. We need to know the stories of the people in our families, in our neighborhoods, in our communities, in the spaces that we frequently occupy. Then, we need to branch out of the places we occupy and seek to know others, too. Other families, other neighborhoods, other communities. I fear that if we stay in our comfort zones, in the places that reflect people who look like us, think like us, act like us, how are we to ever know what it’s like to live a life we don’t recognize? How will we ever have the opportunity to grow our awareness of other people, grow our understanding of what it’s like to live a life we don’t recognize, and to grow our minds broader? How will we ever grow empathy in our hearts if we don’t seek to truly know one another? How will humanity begin to make big shifts toward compassion for one another? And for goodness sake, when will we really begin to engage in dialogue around these issues, within our communities and across our communities, so we can begin to tackle the critical work as human beings of knowing what is happening on the other side of the wall?

I sit with all of these questions rattling around in my heart and mind tonight, as I try to tug back a bit of blanket from my five-year-old. Ha! No, seriously, I just had to put my laptop down a second ago to try to wrestle a bit of covers back. I know you get what I’m saying if you’ve ever been in my shoes before. If not, you can imagine the scene, right, and you’re rallying for me to snag a bit of covers back? And that’s what this reflection is essentially about: no, not blanket procurement, but rather whether or not you’ve actually walked in my shoes and can viscerally get what I’m talking about, including trying to hold my ground in bed-square-footage and blanket space with a sleeping five-year-old, if you’ve never lived this in your life, you can imagine what it’s like, right? Either way, you now know something about me you didn’t before. And that’s where awareness, understanding, and empathy start: knowing one another’s stories. As James Baldwin lamented in the documentary, “I’m terrified at the moral apathy that is death of the heart which is happening in my country.” I see this as the work of empathy-building and the work of leading with a life defined by the stance of love, really.

Truth: I’m naïve. I just am. I always have been. And, I have trust issues. Again, I always have. Two truths that in combination have led to some tricky situations in my four decades on this planet. But, they are my truths, so I have to own them and figure out ways to work through them. So, now you know two more things about me. Okay, ready for more? I am feeling really shaken by what my eyes have witnessed, my heart has felt, my mind has processed over this past year, longer than this past year really, but most vividly, during my life’s journey this past 377 days. Why so specific with the digits? Those are the number of days my young child has been bravely living a life of visibility, hence, our family has been living a visible life alongside him. There are so many things I could tell you about this journey, so many twists and turns along our path, so many small wins and big losses. And, in time, I will as I continue to process them all. And, soon, he will tell you, too, in his own words because I’m a firm believer in the power of a child’s voice in telling their own truths. But tonight, my voice is what you get, for better or worse.

Truth: when your young child is both verbally and physically assaulted by peers at school for his identity and you learn about it from his teary-eyed heart, you break. Your heartbreaks, your soul breaks. When I reflect on what James Baldwin named in the documentary about one’s journey, that one cannot know what they will discover on the journey and what these discoveries will do to them, what I can tell you is what it has done to me.

It has broken me.

Broken me in the most painful ways and the most glorious ways, too. My soul has been cut, my heart has bled for my child. I have lost friends over my child’s realization of self and our family’s stance of fierce support of him as he explores what this identity means for his life. I’ve painfully chosen to cut certain family members out of our life to keep my child safe. I have struggled through navigating within institutions, educational and medical, and legal. And honestly, I have struggled with all the relationships in my life, as well.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” When I reflect upon James Baldwin’s words here, I think about the idea that nothing can change until we face it, on a large societal level as well as a more introspective level of one’s self. It’s the deeply important work of living a life in revision. As I’ve broken into tiny pieces this past year and attempted to fashion them back together into a human being that no longer resembles who I was for nearly four decades, some of the pieces fit beautifully, some I struggle with making fit, some simply don’t fit any longer. Some pieces of my old self I gladly leave discarded at my feet. I’ve made space for new pieces to fit into the new mosaic of me that’s forming and that’s been glorious. This means I’ve redefined every single one of my relationships in my life because I’m forever changed by the discoveries I’ve made, and continue to make, on this journey. This has been exhausting, I’ll be honest. Some relationships have been easier to revise than others: in some cases, I chose people in my life well, or rather they chose me, in other cases, though, it’s been trickier. With the loss of relationships has come the opportunity for newness. New relationships to form with people who I choose to journey with going forward. I’m very mindful to align myself with folks that compliment my newly evolving self and that of my family. That’s been incredibly exciting and daunting, as well, for one with trust issues, as I named before. But, such is life, I guess. Maybe that’s my naivety speaking, I’m not sure.

Gosh, this is feeling a bit like a therapy session and I don’t exactly mean for it to be. But, if you want a glimpse into what it looks like to travel this path with a child such as mine in the terrifying world within which we live today, well, this is what you’re going to get. At least, get from me on this particular night.

Truth: I’m deeply affected by the documentary I Am Not Your Negro. I’m actually angry that it’s taken me nearly four decades to see the world for what it really is: gloriously beautiful and unjustly cruel. I’ve come to know the truth of this statement this past year, but before this past year, I was blind to its truth. I’m going to explore a few things James Baldwin said in the documentary and then try to make sense of them alongside the journey I’m traveling. I do this both as an attempt to make sense of the world as I’m coming to know it and to help you know me better, my family better, so honestly, I can humanize what it means to live the life we’re living and hopefully help your beautiful heart to grow in empathy and your mind to expand in broadness. And while I know James Baldwin’s words in the documentary were an exploration of race and this work is one of the most important explorations we can take on to make our world more just, I want to ask your permission to use his thinking to explore two things. First, to make sense of something a wise group of fifth-graders opened my eyes to in the last days of the school year. And two, to draw parallels from my understandings of what it means to live with a skin color that is systematically oppressed and violently targeted in a racist society with a transgender identity that is systematically oppressed and violently targeted in a transphobic society. The underpinnings of the racist history our country has led since before its inception are far deeper seeded than the struggle of transgender civil rights, this is known as truth. I hope, though, that you will allow me space to respectfully draw on these parallels without negating the gravity of the lived reality of the historical and present-day racism that has defined the country within which we all find ourselves living today. I’m not sure if this parallel of identities is even just and I fear I am being incredibly disrespectful, but I also know that I’ve been shedding skin for the past year and reexamining everything I see around me, so I thank you for your trust in me as I navigate these two areas and try to make sense of things that are far from comprehensible in my mind and my heart tonight.

“I attest to this: the world is not white, it never was white, cannot be white. White is a metaphor for power…When you try to stand up and look the world in the face, like you have the right to be here, you have attacked the entire power structure of the western world” –James Baldwin.

I sit staring at this chart tonight, as my five-year-old has finally settled in and seems to be content with the amount of covers I’ve negotiated with him, for now anyway. This chart was created by thirty-four fifth-graders, mere days ago, as they tackled the notions of societal privilege, power, and oppression with their teacher and me. I’ve written about how the thinking around this chart came about, here, here, herehere, and here, so tonight I want to tackle this final version of the ladder of privilege as seen by a group of insightful children of color. In short, this is the way these children view society privileging myriad identities they see in our country. Take a moment to study the chart and really internalize what message it sends to you. Now, jump out of your privileged adult perspective and look at it through the lens of a child. Notice what stands out to you now. Go on, I’ll give you a minute to study it, as I place my laptop down again to give a tug to my blankets as I spoke too soon and my kid just shifted again; my feet are getting cold.

When James Baldwin clearly stated that white is a metaphor for power, this image struck me as I reflected on this chart. Who is clearly at the top of the ladder of societal privilege: rich, blue-eyed, educated white male adults. The world is not white, as James Baldwin states, but to attain power in our country, the closer you are to whiteness, a metaphor for power, the more privilege and opportunities you have access to. You see this, I see this, and kids see this reality of the way in which the world works, too. Look at where all of my friends, family, and the children that I support personally and professionally, fall on the ladder of privilege: at a level of ‘3’ or below; on the bottom 3/5 of the population of our country. Notice who these fifth-graders placed in the top 20%, who historically and presently hold all the power in our country. It’s quite disturbing, both that so much power is held by so few and denied to so many, and, that kids see this reality at such young ages. Damn, what are we to do with this information? I have one big idea: share it and talk about it. Talk about it with children. Talk about it in your family, in your neighborhood, in your community. Share your thinking, and worries, and outrage, and experiences, and reality with those around you. Share your stories in the realms you have influence over, be it your classrooms, your community centers, your places of worship, your places of business. “…nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Please face it and talk about it. It’s a start.

This reality of the systemic oppression of identities that don’t conform to the notions of whiteness is a reality I’m realizing is defining our journey, as our family has chosen to be visible while living it, as our child has chosen to be visible while living his truth. Patriarchal, sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic institutions define our country and hold the majority of the power while systemically and overtly denying this to anyone that does not check the box of metaphorical whiteness of which James Baldwin speaks. This is also true for my child. To painfully learn how to self-advocate by using your voice to fend off harmful words and aggressive actions toward one’s self, at the young age of seven and eight, is nothing I could have imagined for my child’s life when he was born. I don’t seek to define who he is, I never really have and at the same time, to see him struggle just to survive in this violent world has forever changed the way within which I navigate this world, too. So much I want to say here, but I’m not really sure where to start. Perhaps, as I process my thoughts, I’ll bounce off another of James Baldwin’s poignant thoughts. I hope you don’t see that as a deflection, but rather as a sign that I’m still sorting out some serious issues in my head. I appreciate you giving me space to process.

“What can we do? I don’t know how it will come about, I know no matter how it comes about, it will be bloody, it will be hard. I still believe we can do in this country something that has not been done before…we think we need numbers, you don’t need numbers—you need passion and this is proven by the history of the world…History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us, we are our history.” When I heard these words from James Baldwin in the documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, they pierced a hole in my heart, especially the image of how bloody things are, have been, and will continue to be as we struggle along this path of change toward a more just world. The countless innocent bodies that have been killed due to racism in this country alone make me want to curl up in my little cave, close my eyes, and cover my ears. That is my white privilege talking: that I even have a choice to do that reflects my privilege in our racist society. But here’s another truth of mine: I will not hide from this cruel reality. I will not blind myself to the reality of our country and close my eyes. I will not cover my ears when I’m notified that another Black transgender person is murdered. I will not. When James Baldwin asks the question of what we can do, it reminds me of a similar question we asked this group of fifth-graders at the end of reading a trans-inclusive book. We asked, “What is our call as humans? Our responsibility now that we have knowledge is…in our home, school, community, the world? What are some actions we can take?” Below are their ideas of actions they felt they could commit to taking to channel their aware empathetic hearts into action. Many responses from these wise children were poignant, but one really stuck out to me: “Be open to hearing them, be an “open door.” This struck me because it goes back to my essential truth in writing this thought-piece tonight: knowing one another’s stories is where awareness, understanding, and empathy can grow from.

“It’s a problem whether or not you’re willing to look at your life and be responsible for it and then begin to change it.” I want to leave you with this thought from James Baldwin to linger upon. Are you willing to look at your life, reexamine what you hold as truth, your positionality within those around you, and take responsibility for the privileges the system affords you? Are you willing to begin to break a little in order to change the way you navigate through life to work toward creating more justice around you? Are you willing to take what you’ve learned from a bit of my story that I’ve revealed to you tonight, hold it in your heart, and begin to shift your thinking and actions in ever so slight ways, to bend the moral arch toward justice? I hope you are. It’s the only way we can collectively shift the narrative I see in our country, in our world, defined by so much hatred, aggression, anger, and inhumane treatment of one another. I will no longer stand idly by while these atrocities happen to my child, my family, my friends, my community without using my voice to speak up for them and my hands to actively work toward justice. I’ve spent far too long as an empathetic spectator watching life flow by. Life has thrown me in the deep end of the pool and while I’ve spent much of the past year drowning, gasping for breath, I’m learning to swim. I invite you to swim alongside me. We must all get wet. It’s the only way to make strides toward a more just world defined by love, compassion, empathy, and understanding. A world that I hope my two boys will one day inherit.

___

Published with permission from a parent of a trans child in our advocacy network. -C

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180 Days of Love

Love.

Tonight, my writing is going to be about love.

Why, you may ask, why are you going to dedicate a whole reflection to just one word?

This.

“We’re not evolving as a civilization. We’re devolving…What is it going to take?” These were some of the poignantly raw words Valerie Castile, the mother of Philando Castile, spoken upon hearing the acquittal of her son’s murderer tonight. My heart broke for her and my mind raged against the thought of the injustice of another innocent life taken at the hands of another human begin.

So you may ask again, Why all about love tonight? Because. I have to. I have to focus on love tonight. At the end of the day, at the end of all days, love is the only force powerful enough to create the space for our humanity to redeem itself. For the collective “we” to recognize the humanity in others. I steadfastly believe that if we were to truly know one another, how could we possibly commit atrocities on other human beings that I see in our world today? So much injustice in the world exists, so many acts of hate are perpetrated on the lives of innocent human beings. So much unkindness meets my eyes, my mind, my heart as I look to the world each day. I fear that the people I hold in my heart will not live to see gray hairs. Those whom my heart bleeds for each day, may not live to see gray hairs upon their heads. I sit with that for a moment. That’s the reality within which I live my daily life. You may not understand my perspective nor why I name this as my truth, and that’s alright with me. But know this: the lives that surround me are the most magnificent beings I’ve ever had the honor of knowing. I cannot reconcile the truth that the beauty that exists around me may not one day reach the age of wisdom that affords us gray hair. I sit with this and my heart breaks little by little, actually for 373 days since my young child emerged to the world as a visible transgender boy. Although you may tell me not to worry, things are changing, we’re progressing month by month, I don’t believe you. And, that’s my right.

I think it’s unfair that my kids, being young White boys of relative societal privilege by sheer right of birth into a patriarchal, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic country within which we live, never have to have the talk that so many Parents of Color have to have with their children. A few months ago, we watched the PBS documentary The Talk: Race in America (found here), which illustrates “the increasingly necessary conversation taking place in homes and communities across the country between parents of color and their children, especially sons, about how to behave if they are ever stopped by the police.” So tonight, as I told my boys about the injustice that just happened against another innocent life, we circled back to when we watched the documentary. My boys had so many questions, “Mama, why would they shoot him in front of a child?” “Are the mom and daughter okay?”  “He worked at a school with kids, why would they kill him?” I didn’t have answers for my two boys on so many of their questions, so I named what I saw: “Guys, we live in a racist society and this is what happens as a result. I am of the belief if we truly knew one another, knew one another’s stories, knew one another’s humanity, we would grow closer because we have empathy toward others. Then, atrocities like this perhaps wouldn’t happen.” But, I don’t really know. I just don’t know anymore.  I went on to remind my boys of the conversation from The Talk. I told them about what so many families were probably talking to their children about tonight, again, hoping they would one day see their child develop gray hair. I know my best friend has had this talk with her three precious children of mixed race, who are dear friends of my two boys. She’s had this talk countless times, and again, was having this talk with them tonight. I told my boys, “If auntie and her three kids have to have this conversation again tonight, so do you.” After we reviewed what to do in the circumstances of danger, my young transgender son thought for a minute, then asked me this soul-slicing question: “Mama, will I get shot, too, because of, you know, I’m trans?” Damn. Trans identities are often ones that aren’t visible upon first glance, as skin color is, but my child has experienced many circumstances of overt aggression from folks around him this year and is beginning to, unfortunately, learn the oppressive nature of his identity in our society. So when I looked into his big brown eyes, it was one of the first times I didn’t know how to answer him. So, I was just honest with him. Here’s what I said, “I don’t know, babe. For most of my life I thought absolutely not, but now I question everything and I just don’t know. I guess it depends, it depends on who you’re interacting with if they know your identity if they empathy in their heart. I want to tell you absolutely not, but I just don’t know. I so sorry, but I’ll do my best to keep you safe.” He just stared at me, thought for a minute, and then continued eating his dinner. The air was thick tonight.

I try to reconcile the fact that my young child has to live in a society within which he even has to ask the question if he is confronted by authority of any sort, will he make it out alive. First, my heart breaks: I would gladly trade places with him in that circumstance in a heartbeat, as I’m almost assured by the privileges society affords me, that in the same situation, I’d walk away unscathed. It’s just a plain fact that because of my skin color, hair color, eye color, and my way with words, I’d be walking away alive. That’s unjust and that’s the reality I see. Second, he’s now old enough to recognize how the world works in increasingly unjust ways. And finally, he’s awake enough to see the parallels between his marginalized identity, which renders him invisible in much of the public spaces that he occupies, to others experiencing similar realities. My heart breaks here, too.

So, with all the ways my heart screams against the injustices I see in the world, in our country, and through my child’s eyes, I have to focus the rest of this reflection on the one force that I believe will have the most impact on shifting this narrative for generations to come: love.

The day after the devastating national election mere months ago that rendered our future, specifically that of my visible trans child, less safe, our family began to repeat this mantra, one that has become the words we speak to one another each morning before leaving our home: “I choose love today.” We borrowed this language from a hero’s words that gave us some comfort during the unsure dark days after the election: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This is the stance I hope my children take as they navigate their paths in life and one we repeat religiously daily. I truly believe love is really the only way we have to move forward as a society. So, I want to shine a light on some of the ways I’ve seen or been apart of watching this love become reality, namely, how children, and the adults who create space for their voices to be privileged, be known, be heard, are making love a verb. I invite you to experience the beauty of love enacted by children and adults as a way to live this truth: if we truly know one another, we have no other choice but to grow our empathetic hearts and our love for all of humanity’s gifts.

Photography of Love: Safe Spaces

When a teacher saves your child and makes his life possible, you are indebted to this teacher for life. That’s what happened to us this year. Here is but a glimpse of why my child’s teacher is the best human being on the planet. I wrote about this in a previous reflection, here, but for the purpose of setting up what his teacher did in a beautifully human way, let me give a bit of context and then illustrate what she did to respond.

The context.

Within a few weeks of my third grader’s transition at school, where he bravely chose to live his truth as a visible trans boy, he heard hateful words uttered to him by a peer. How my child responded and ultimately, how his teacher responded to this painful situation, are something we can all learn from in big ways, so that the actions and words of fiercely brave children around us, and the adults who advocate for them on the daily, will be seen and heard. When a child confronted my son telling him that who he was, as a transgender boy, was wrong, my son responded by quoting the words from a book we’d read a few weeks prior. My kid had remembered this poignant scene where the main character had first seen the word transgender in print on the poster in the principal’s office and the poster’s association with safe spaces: “We support safe spaces for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth” (Alex Gino’s George, p. 125). I remember how excited my kid and I were when we had read this scene and how the character had responded. We had talked at length about how that must have felt and how the main character was finally finding an adult to support her at school. Wow, impactful at the time, but I had never truly known how impactful those words from that scene had been in my kid’s life.

So, a few weeks later, during a transition meeting for my child, attended by all the key players in a child’s academic team, I turned to the room full of adults and asked them to indulge me for a moment as I read aloud a few paragraphs from the book George. After reading the excerpts, I recounted the experience that transpired for my son. His teacher hung on every word and every part of my son’s experience. All adults in the room were blown away by his self-advocacy in finding his voice to stand tall for his identity so early on in the school year. His teacher, though, was thinking more deeply, I could tell. Over the coming weekend, my child’s teacher purchased the book, read it cover to cover, and approached me the following week. The idea of safe spaces had struck her so vividly and she wanted to delve deeper into this idea. As a truly compassionate educator that wanted to know her students on a deeper level, she discussed her desire to follow the idea of safe spaces in a visible way. We collaborated on what happened next: an experience that illustrates the notion that when a teacher truly understands who their students are, it makes all the difference in the world for how children navigate through the landscape of a classroom. They are seen, they are heard, they are valued.

We both believe in the power of children’s voice: namely, listening up when children have things to say. As adults,  we can agree it is our responsibility to listen to children when they’ve things to say, right? I’d assert to know a child or a person for that matter, you need to seek to see through their eyes and have empathy for their lived experience. So, my child’s teachers and I embarked on a journey to truly know her students, not only through their words but through their eyes. And, here’s how: she asked her students this question: “What makes you feel safe? And think, especially at school.” She wanted to know her new students in a deep way, through their eyes, so when they were having a hard time a school or feeling complicated emotions, she would know what brought them a sense of safety. As a teacher, this is the kind of life work that’s essential in the spaces we create with children. As they thought about what made them feel safe, they began to realized there were particular spaces on the school campus that created a sense of safety for many of them. Instead of having her students merely describe these spaces, we decided the metaphor that a “picture speaks a thousand words” was apt here. We accompanied groups of students as they went to the places on campus that made them feel the safest to snap pictures of these spaces and reflect upon why the space made them feel safe. Using the art form of photography to illustrate their voice was a beautifully inclusive way for children’s artistic spirit to shine through while being vulnerable to reveal the spaces they held sacred. Below, I hope you find joy in reading through the ideas of why these particular spaces brought a sense of safety to these young children while also getting a window into how their sense of safety lends comfort to their world.

“No one can see me, so if I feel sad, I can sit by the pole in the small space.”

“Friends make me safe because I feel comfortable.”

“It’s safe because you can sit on it whenever you want, even when you’re lonely.”

“The library is a safe spot because you can just focus on reading and the book can take you to a good place.”

“There are teachers here, so it feels safe.”

These are but a few of the poignant images and reflections from these young children. The last makes me smile: “There are teachers here, so it feels safe.” What an immense responsibility we have as adults in children’s lives to create spaces where they are known, seen, and listened to. This kind of work begins our journey into truly knowing one another, not just at a level of interests and hobbies, but at a deeper level of our emotions and sense of safety. My kid’s teacher now knows when her students come to school feeling any complicated emotions, some may need space that is quiet and alone to work through their thoughts, while others might need to curl up with a comfy pillow and a good book in the library to sort out their thoughts. It’s this kind of work to actively know and build our empathy toward one another that can be a first step into building a more just world that we seek. If we know one another in deep ways, how can we interact with anything but love in our hearts?

Words of Love: Chalk Messages

Children have a multitude to say–anyone who spends any amount of time with kids knows this truth instantly. In the dark days after the national election, that illuminated feelings of divisiveness illustrated by a nation with hatred just bubbling under the surface, children were feeling the effects of the nervous energy adults were exuding, too.  We all felt it, right? Anyone with children in their care, as parents, guardians, family members, educators, coaches, community members, you felt their unease, right? Whenever people have visceral reactions to situations, I’m a big believer in taking action. Putting our minds and hands to work feels like we’re working toward something larger than ourselves and creates a space for us to feel productive and work toward a bigger goal. So, having the honor of working with third and fourth graders the days after the election, we decided to do two things: read the beautiful story, Doreen Rappaport’s Martin’s Big Words, a picture book that speaks to Dr. King’s life’s work through his own words, and two, we decided what big words we wanted adults to know from us as children. We decided we’d write these words all across our campus, so when adults emerged, they could read the words children wanted them to see, hear, and know.

Here’s what unfolded from children’s hearts and minds, including the brainstorm of the words and phrases children wanted adults to read and some images of the chalked words on the campus.

Our Words for Adults:

Love

Freedom

Peace

One

Together

Bravery

Boldness

Safety

Equality

Stronger Together

Kindness

Positivity

Choose love

Happiness

All

Respect

Radical Inclusivity

One Family

Brave

Letters of Love: Voices of Empathy

Another illustration of making love a verb actually happened on the most commercialized day of love in our country: Valentine’s Day. As a firm believer in showing love daily and resisting the draw to celebrate a capitalist’s version of the intent of this day my entire adult years, a group of adults created a space where the young children in our lives could shift the narrative of the day in big ways. We created a gratitude party, comprised of six families, around fifteen children ages five to eleven, big hearts, and broad minds.

We began by talking about who in our lives we admire and why. We generated a list of the people we admire, why, and possible ideas of love we could communicate to them. We then created postcards with the words of gratitude we wanted these personal heroes of us to hear (and a few pleas to the newly elected president, too). Below are just a few of the words of gratitude these young hearts wrote about their heroes, which we promptly sent along that afternoon.

Our list of people we admire and why

 “Help us hillary clinton trump won’t help”

“To: Gavin Grimm All of us give you hope and bravness. You can do what you want to do. Love,”

“Dear Michelle Obama, you are a great speaker and also inspired me. you have true girl power. I love that you speak your mind. For these reasons you are amazing.”

“Dear President Trump, I think that black people and people from other countries are the same as white people. They might have different colored skin or talk different but they still love people and are loved the same. People that haven’t done anything and live in a different country.”

“Dear Mrs. Yates, Thank you for standing up to President Trump and fighting for Muslim rights. Although I am not Muslim myself, I still appreciate you because  you are a wonderful role model to all women -young or old- who are quietly mourning in the shadows. You have encouraged them to fight for their rights openly and write letters, email, call, and text, to tell the person they are writing to that they appreciate them, such as I am. Keep doing what you’re doing!”

“Dear Senator Elizabeth Warren, When we heard you speak for the first time, you inspired me to speak up more. We love how you don’t give up! You remind us that we must speak up for ourselves and for others. Thank you for being a great role model. Love,”

When spaces are created that render children’s voices heard and words visible, we grow closer to one another. Our love expands to envelop our communities into spaces of visible compassion.

Poetic Love: A Window into our Humanity

I am a firm believer in this statement: poetry is a window into one’s soul. To know one’s stories through the medium of the poetic stance is to truly embark on a journey of radical empathy.  Adults have the responsibility to co-create spaces with children so their voices can be privileged, be known, and be heard, not silenced and erased from the spaces we occupy together. If we agree that love is a verb and we show our love toward one another through actions, creating space for kids to explore their world through poetry is one pathway to seeing this love take flight. And, once we begin to truly know one another at this deeper level, we have no other choice but to grow our empathetic hearts and our love for each other.  A dear mentor of mine recently sent me these words from a poet’s perspective on the notion of silence, “The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable. It is through these invisible holes in reality that poetry makes its way — certainly for women and other marginalized subjects and for disempowered and colonized peoples generally, but ultimately for all who practice any art at its deeper levels. The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence. Every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence, and the first question we might ask any poem is, What kind of voice is breaking silence, and what kind of silence is being broken?” -Adrienne Rich. 

Wow, right? What kind of voice is breaking silence, and what kind of silence is being broken? So powerfully beautiful. Three teachers and I embarked on a study of student voice and expression, to get to know their student’s young minds in a deeper way, through the study of one technique from one of my personal heroes, author, and poet Georgia Heard. We used her technique of the “Six Room Writing” to guide second grade, third grade, and fifth-grade students, through a journey of poetic thought. Below is the illumination of our study: both the technique we used and the masterful poems that emerged from the souls of these young minds. The depth of insight is going to blow you away, it did for us.

Six Room Writing Technique

We had the young poets jot a quick structure divided into six parts. We then guided them through each “room,” modeling what it looked like for us, then they tried it out. They shared their ideas periodically with a thinking partner. In the end, we modeled many ways they might to use this six-room writing technique and invited them to create their own ways of using these ideas to create poems. Some students even jotted their technique on the board and named it after them, highlighting their ownership of the work in powerful ways.

Room One: Think of a memory or observation of the world around you. Jot words and phrases.

Room Two: Ask yourself, “What did you see?” A hyper-focus on the visual, lights, and colors. Jot words and phrases.

Room Three: Ask yourself, “What did you hear?” Jot words and phrases.

Room Four: Ask yourself, “What do you wonder about? Be authentic, if you don’t have a wonder, leave it blank.” Jot your wonderings.

Room Five: “Describe what you felt in that memory.” Jot words and phrases.

Room Six: “Read over your words and summarize your thoughts by picking the essential words that stood out to you. Repeat them three times.” Jot the words or phrases three times.

Below is an example of the chart build out with the description of each room’s focus:

Below is an example of some possible strategies of what to try out with all the words and phrases populated in the six rooms, with some student strategies as well.

Now, for the window into children’s hearts, minds, and souls. When we know one another, how can we help but grow our hearts bigger and minds broader?

This young poet’s six-room writing memory of a hospital waiting room with his grandparent…

The Waiting Room

Just silence

in the waiting room

nothing

A pen to sign

in to go to the room

but

I had to

stay

and wait

I got a licorice

This young poet’s six-room writing memory of a car ride with their mom…

To worried

night

dark

In the car

car’s Engine

mom’s phone rings

Who’s in the Phone?

what is my mom crying about?

Im worried

scared

worried

worried

worried

This young poet’s six-room writing the memory of the birth of a new baby brother…

Early at the Hospital

A new baby brother

Thinking of names

A happy baby cake

cake throw up

Baby Brother crying

Laughter, loving tears

Why was I mad about having a brother?

Why is he loving?

Why was he born on my b-day?

loving, caring and tears from happness

Landy!

Landy!

Landy!

This young poet’s six-room writing memory of feeling denial in the face of death…

11 o’clock

she’s dead

11 o’clock

She’s…

gone

crying

Denial

Why did

she go so

soon?

She had

6 years

and only

lived 3

11 o’clock,

dead, denial,

11 o’clock

If we are to know one another in a deeper way, in so doing grow our love and humanity toward one another, one pathway to begin to build this understanding is through the power of poetry. I want to comfort the young poet who was denied entry into his grandparent’s hospital room upon a trip to the hospital, where he clearly sees the injustice in this situation of being made to wait separate from everyone else. I want to provide space for the young poet to talk about the worry they felt at watching their mother cry during their car ride. I want to celebrate the joyous feelings the poet felt at the birth of their baby brother, even if it was on their same birthday. And most strikingly, I want to explore the feelings of denial in the face of loss. All of this I want to explore, with the consent of these young minds. As poetry is a window into our deepest feelings and reflections, ideas that emerge must be fiercely protected, shared only in deeply safe spaces, and always with consent. The power of the written poetic word to build our connections with one another and grow our love is innumerable.

180 days of love.

I’ve spent the past 180 school days enveloped in the love and compassion of children and the adults who labor on their behalf daily. I think a lot about our responsibility toward one another. I think a lot about parents who’ve lost children to violence and children who’ve lost parents to the same. I cannot reconcile my feelings of deep sadness of this narrative in our country, in our world. The only thing I can do, though, is seek to understand the people in my life, in my community, in our country and world, at a deeper level. And teach the children I have under my care and the children in the spaces I have the honor of being a part of, to do the same. I believe it begins with our children. As Frederick Douglass once stated, “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” I believe if we can make a daily commitment to grow our minds broad, our hearts deep, and take action in the spaces we have influence and teach our children, students, and youth we’ve relationships with to do the same, it’s got to make a small difference toward creating the world we hope our children will one day inherit: one illustrated by empathy, compassion, kindness, awareness, respect, equity, justice and above all else, love for one another.

___

Published with permission from the educator allies featured in this writing piece. -C

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Institutional Power Playing With Fire

Ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can have -James Baldwin

Before beginning this thought piece with the wise words from one of my literary heroes, Jaqueline Woodson, I am going to name a truth I profoundly believe and if you don’t also believe this truth, well then, herein lies an opportunity for you to live in a bit of aspirational discomfort until you shift your thinking in big ways. It’s okay, I’ll wait for you and welcome you with an open heart when you’re ready to walk alongside my deep belief. So, ready to hear it and see where your positionality places you along this spectrum of alignment with me?

Let me bounce my belief off of a quote from one of my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury: “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.” Well, friends, I, unfortunately, encountered an institution choosing to play with fire recently. I steadfastly believe the act of censorship of books coupled with the overt act of denying children and teachers access to read books in the elementary school classroom is an act against children’s ability to grow their minds, hearts, and actions in empathetic ways. It denies children the opportunity to have access to information and create their own thinking from this knowledge. It’s essentially what James Baldwin spoke about in his famous quote referring to the unchecked ignorance of power named as the most ferocious enemy of justice. I’ll explore this notion more later, but for now, do a self-check for me: you with me? Beautiful. If not, keep reading, I hope you’ll walk alongside me soon.

In her Author’s Note of the brilliant picture book The Other Side, prolific author Jaqueline Woodson states her intent in writing the book and why it was so meaningful for her. Among many things she stated, these words stuck with me in a profound way: “I knew two things: One—that I wanted this to be a story about the way in which young people change the world each day through their seemingly simple acts of resistance. And two—that I wanted it to be a lyrical story that brought with the telling hope… Always, I would say—‘What about right here in this classroom?’ And slowly, the young people would begin to look around and notice, perhaps for the first time, that there is still work to do.” Her poignant question, “What about right here in the classroom,” struck me so profoundly, that I decided to explore her wondering charge with a yearlong study in just such a place, well actually, two. Two classrooms, starkly different in many ways, except one critical thread that wove them together: the empathy and compassion in the hearts and minds of the children and teachers that inhabited them. This is their story, their journey. I’m just a mirror to reflect the beauty and struggle to you. My hope is that by the end of this thought piece, you find your pathway to action that will join with my actions and those actions of thousands of others across this nation, as we become a movement of change together.

For a mama of a young visible transgender child, living his life bravely and boldly for this past year, our world came crashing down in a big way after our nation’s election seven months ago. So many outrageous things have transpired since that dark day, which this reflection will not be about. Instead, this reflection will center what light was shone in the spaces we have a small bit of influence within. Namely, the spaces occupied by glorious children. As a mama who is an educator by trade, who has many dear educator friends that found themselves just as shaken by the results of the election as I was, we decided to shift a bit of the focus of how we use literature in the elementary classroom to begin creating spaces for an exploration of compassion and empathy through the deep study of identity. Alfred Tatum’s profound words echo my belief system about the power of literacy instruction in creating the conditions within which children can gain tools for their own self-liberation: “Literacy instruction should never get in the way or postpone our deeper humanity. Every time we fail to teach a student to read, we put a bullet in a chamber.” Pause on that statement he recently made at a literacy event hosted by Columbia University’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project this spring. It’s big, it’s visceral, it’s truth.  I’d add: every time we fail to equip a student with the tools to think critically, push back on what they are learning, and voice their ideas through the spoken and written word, the same metaphor is true.

We chose to center our study on the Balanced Literacy component of the interactive read aloud, because as one of my literacy heroes, Lucy Calkins asserts, in her Guide to the Reading Workshop, “We read because this is the best way we know to come together in a community of care…how powerful it is to read aloud, right smack in the midst of the hope and heartaches of a classroom, amid friendships that form and dissolve…children work out their life and death issues” (2010, 79-80).  As a foundational belief that literacy instruction is one pathway toward our larger humanity, where we can explore the important work of life in the context of a safe supportive learning space, this spirit guided the two teachers and I as we explored multiple identities through a series of beautifully inclusive texts read across the school year. Our intent was to create safe spaces for children to explore what it means to show our hearts to one another in this new national climate illustrated by so much hate, aggression, and divisiveness. As this journey unfolded, none of us quite expected what happened: both from the hearts and minds of children and from the painfully short-sided privilege of institutions in positions of power to deny children access to opportunities to build empathy toward one another.

How does one push back on the narrative of privilege, power, and systemic oppression that pervades the nation within which we live today? Confession? I’m not sure. Sorry, that’s the transparency of my stance as a learner and realizing I know less the more I learn. Want to hear my growing theory, though? Well, I believe many pathways might emerge for one that wants to do this deep work of pedagogical shifts, depending on your positionality within the system, your identity, your profession, your ability, and so on. If you’re an educator, though, who has the honor of inspiring and being inspired by young minds and hearts on the daily, beautifully inclusive texts read to groups of incredible children is one way, one very big way. And, this is exactly what I explored with the two teachers this school year as they took their elementary-aged students on a journey of thought, studying identity through literature. Let me paint a picture of the context for each learning space, explore some of the literature and student thinking along the way, and then process a devastating obstacle to this narrative, one that this literacy-loving educator and mama of a visible transgender child cannot yet reconcile: powerful institutional ignorance that flies in the face of the growth of children’s minds, hearts, and actions.

Let me paint the scene.

To get an image of why this work was so profound for us this year, let me set the context of each learning space in a general way: One learning space, an upper-grade classroom in a Title 1 school in a large urban city, was comprised of children of color. The other space, a primary grade classroom in an award-winning school in a suburban neighborhood, was comprised of children of relative societal privilege. Different in more ways than not. What tied these two starkly different classes together, though? As it turned out, two things: first, the compassion and empathy within the hearts and minds of the children who inhabited both spaces, and second, their teachers: they were bold, experienced, activist teachers who both took on the task of responding to what the world offered them as opportunities to tackle in the classroom.

I invite you to journey with these two teachers, a group of young minds, and me, their consummate collaborator and fellow activist educator.

Our study began with a favorite from Jacqueline Woodson’s work for young readers, The Other Side. In a few sentences, her book explores the ways children push against societal norms to discover the ties that bind: friendship and a common goal to find humanity within one another. As this book was read to these young minds, children instantly connected with the two main characters, a young Black girl named Clover and a young White girl named Annie. Children from both classrooms instantly expressed an understanding of the underlying theme of the book: the girls pushing back against the societal norms at the time around segregation and racism. They even clearly understood the symbolism behind the fence, that literally and figuratively, divided them. Of course, they would, right? But here’s the thing: as adults, we may recognize that children have a sense of these topics in the world, but do we co-create spaces in the places we have influence over (homes, classrooms, community spaces) for these conversations and exchange of ideas to occur on a regular basis? I linger on the answer to this question…

When we do, here’s what happens: we form a shared understanding of what it means to be humane, compassionate, and respectful of one another. In essence, our empathy grows. In opening spaces for these conversations around race, racism, segregation, and societal responses to these notions, children’s ideas began to grow in big ways. As the teachers and I explored this book and the symbolic nature of the fence in the story with both classes, the children made incredibly profound connections between the acts of racism in history and the acts of racism that pervade our communities today. Here are some ideas from both the spoken and written words of insightful youth.

  • “People of Color and White people were not allowed to be together but Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wanted to knock down that old fence” -primary student
  • “If you knock that fence, all kids could be friends with one another” -primary student
  • “All the children are good and really want to put that fence down so all can play. They could knock that fence down all together and then more friends will come” -primary student (Please, children, I’m counting on you to do just that: knock down that fence, together alongside your fellow peers…)

Some primary students’ written words:

The upper graders had parallel reactions and discussions like the primary grade children, relating what the book spoke of in a historical sense to what was emerging in today’s reality.

  • “We had an inauguration recently and it makes me think of this. In the book, this segregation happened because it had been the way it had always been about skin color. We can’t change the past, we can only change the future, because that’s the way things were. Dr. King changed things between black and white people” -upper grader
  • “Just one fence can do so much—they are being separated and the girls don’t even know why” -upper grader (Children can recognize the big implications of a societal structure with the unwritten rules of power and privilege that render particular subsets of people powerless. “Just one fence” and the reflection that kids don’t even know… That’s the big work of creating the conditions within which children begin to learn and reflect, in our homes, our classrooms, our community spaces.)
  • “Just because their skin tone is different from them, they shouldn’t be separated. It’s like separation like our border between the US and Mexico” -upper grader (notice just how similar this thought was to the primary grader’s writing above…children understand the world in big ways, they listen to everything, and make these deep connections that we should provide space for them to process further with their peers).

This reflection made one classmate ask this question: When did this story take place and could this happen today? Wow, right? I’d consider this book under the historical fiction umbrella, so after many conversations, the class settled on the book taking place decades ago. To clarify what this student’s thinking was edging toward when he made the connection between the fence and the US border, we decided to follow up his thinking and the second part of his question: Could this happen today?  What followed in the whole class conversation was poignant and left the teacher and I with this one thought: kids get it. They get it in big ways.

  • “I think the president today is going to make segregation today by different types because he plans to build a wall between the US and Mexico. This makes it all much worse” -upper grader
  • “Wait, we’ve been together for decades and it would be heartbreaking to happen. What about mixed race families? It doesn’t make sense. You need to consider what others want and think about others’ feelings and make them happy. Some families that are White and Black would be separated and that would be sad” -upper grader (notice how similar this statement was to the writing of the primary grader upon reflecting on her sister and herself).
  • “Some of this segregation is happening today. It’s still segregated in the south. People don’t care about the law and they break it” -upper grader
  • “Our new president might split us apart. He already is doing that with Muslims and other Muslims are standing up for them at the airport” -upper grader (to which point the class gasped at her statement that it’s already happening today, the teacher and I looked at one another with awestruck faces to the poignancy of her comment, and I layered in with this: It’s not only Muslims standing tall at the airport, my family and I just marched in our local airport this past weekend to show our solidarity and support for the Muslim community. When something is important to us, we stand tall. I wanted the students to know it takes action on all our parts to stand tall for our beliefs).

The upper grader’s writing below echoes this perspective. The last line is incredibly poignant: “But if you resiste you can change history because of your action.” Yes, kiddo, that’s exactly right, YOU all can change the future of how our history is shaped by your ACTIONS.

Below, you’ll notice one primary grader’s and one upper grader’s list of items they can try out as small acts of resistance. Who’s with them, with us?

  • Doing a march
  • Running for president
  • Being together as one
  • Preventing separation
  • Protest
  • Destroying barriers
  • Find way around
  • Taking a stand

       

Primary Grade Student Upper-Grade Student

It was clear to the teachers and me just how profoundly impactful the “stuff happening in life” was on the minds of their students as they grappled with the notions of what to do to push back against it and the implications of what it meant for their lives. I hope this is some of the types of work you are a part of with the youth around you, either as a parent, teacher, or community mentor. And you know something? I know this deep work has been going on for so long and the poignancy of children’s ideas is nothing new, except they are attaching the concepts of beautifully inclusive books like this to some very pointed things occurring in the landscape of our nation today.  We need to steadfastly continue to do this deep work of having conversations around race, racism, and our history of segregation, always and to continue t0 take actions against hateful views and actions. We positioned this beautiful book as one pathway into the study to open a space for this exploration of identity work with elementary-aged kids. And full disclosure here, my reader, as to why. I was looking for a way to thoughtfully layer in books that explored identity in a variety of ways as a foundation that eventually edged us closer to exploring the uncharted territory of the one identity that pervades my every waking thought: that of a trans identity, specifically, a trans youth identity. Just so I’m transparent and all with you…

With this evolution of thought emerging, we decided a next move was to continue the study of identity through a book that tackled another aspect of identity through a reading of Michael Hall’s Red: A Crayon’s Story. In this book, the author explores the notion of who we really are on the inside, despite the way we present on the outside. It’s a beautiful way for our young readers to explore the notions around gender expansiveness and the responsibility we have to love, see and support those around us. To be frank, this is a book that I lovingly name as the “gateway text” that gets the conversation going with young children that layers in the idea that just because one is born with a particular “crayon color wrapper” doesn’t necessarily mean that person actually identities with that wrapper. Plainly, when the red crayon tries to color, his color always turns out blue, not red. When he is finally supported in his identity of coloring blue, he empowers himself and those around him beautifully see him for his authentic self: a blue crayon.

In both the primary and upper-grade classrooms, we began with a quick conversation about hidden messages from authors. We made the assertion that authors sometimes reveal hidden messages through the characters they choose to write about and that we needed to pay close attention to what authors are trying to teach us in stories through the character’s experiences and the notion that perhaps the crayon represents the human identity in a deeper way. Both the classes were up for the exploration of hidden messages.

Before reading the book aloud, in the upper-grade classroom, we moved into a conversation about the notion of change (we’d do this with the primary grade students next time, too). We posed this question: What in life might change about someone’s identity? After thinking through possibilities with a thinking partner, the upper graders generated a quick list of possible ways a person might change over time. A few that stood out to me in a big way were: one’s heart, one’s thinking, and one’s respect for themselves. All really big ideas. Before beginning the read aloud, we posed one additional question to the class: Can one’s gender change, too? After defining what gender was to clarify this term, students processed this question again with a thinking partner. Some weren’t quite sure while others said sure. One partnership even named the idea of a transgender person. As we shared out highlights from our conversations, this pair shared out their idea that transgender people exist, they’d even heard of them, too. The class agreed that we could add the idea of gender to our chart, so we did.

In true form, both the primary and upper graders understood the notions underlying this inclusive text, in big ways I might add. Let’s explore some of their ideas, both through transcripts of class discussions during the read aloud in the primary classroom and the written word in the notebooks of the upper graders.

Exploration of Thought During the Read Aloud

In one turn and talk moment, we asked students to process how Red felt when he couldn’t color red. Here are some of the primary grader’s ideas:

  • “Red feels upset, like he can’t do what he’s supposed to.”
  • “Red is sad, he wasn’t really red, his wrapper, he’s really blue. He should have a blue wrapper.”
  • “He’s supposed to be blue, by accident they have him the color red.”
  • “What’s so bad about this part is when he was born his parents thought he was red and named him red, but he was actually blue.”

In another turn and talk moment, when children were responding to how Red felt as the other crayons around him were being incredibly unkind to him, here are some of the primary grader’s ideas:

  • “Red feels left out of the crayon group, they are being mean to him, not nice and saying bad things to him.”
  • “Just because of what color he uses, it doesn’t match his name. You can’t judge others by the color they are.”
  • “It’s like the book The Other Side, the dark skin and the light skin and the wrapper.”
  • “I think the hidden message is that Red is actually a blue crayon and he was switched. You should not boss people around for their skin color.”

As we neared the end of the book, when Red realized he was really a blue crayon all along and as his peers and family began to see this, too, and support him, the primary graders reflected on the hidden messages in the text:

  • “It matters who you are, not matters what you look like.”
  • “Doesn’t matter what you are, don’t give up on who you are, try your hardest.”

Exploration of Thought Through Written Reflections

To explore the realizations the upper graders made after hearing the book Red, I’m going to center their own written words to express their deepest empathetic reflections.

Recognizing the depth of knowledge these sets of students had brought to the conversations in class and their reflective writings, we decided to read another beautifully inclusive text: Jessica Walton’s Introducing Teddy: A Gentle Story about Gender and Friendship. This is a book about a teddy bear revealing her truth to the child that loves her and how friendship preservers over time. Both The Other Side and Red: A Crayon’s Story were read alouds that I read as a guest in these incredible teacher’s classrooms. I am both their friend and colleague. We had a sense of trust and they knew my rapport with children. But, here’s the thing. As we got closer to a book that edged into conversations on topics that seem to be trickier in our world today, we recognized this. I’d assert there are no controversial topics, just controversial viewpoints upon these topics, especially with conversations centering around LGBTQIA identities. Knowing this and reflecting upon the world within which we find ourselves today, we agreed that the teachers would take on the read aloud of this book this time.

To frame the reading of Introducing Teddy, the upper-grade teacher began by posing this question for students to consider: What are some things you enjoy doing with your friends? She continued: Things change in stories based on events and other things that move a story. Pay attention to what things change and what things don’t change.

Read Aloud

In a first opportunity to reflect upon the story with a partner, the teacher posed this question to the students: How do you think Tilly the Teddy felt when she shared with Errol (the boy) “I’m a girl teddy not a boy teddy”?

  • “Tilly felt nervous and didn’t know what the boy would say. Would he be a friend or not keep a secret? She was tired of the boy calling her Thomas. She was disappointed by the name Thomas.”
  • “Tilly felt disappointed and given the wrong name. She always knew she was a girl Teddy—she always knew.”
  • “She’s expecting a negative effect on the relationship. She’s feeling uncomfortable and nervous.”
  • “Tilly feels sad because she knew she was always a girl and given a boy name. The boy didn’t know. Would the friendship break apart because of her gender?”
  • “Tilly felt guilty because friends tell secrets but Tilly kept this secret from him, so not to feel bad, she told him.”
  • “If Tilly was always a girl, why didn’t she tell Errol in the beginning? If she knew the whole time, why did she feel bad now and not back then?”
  • “Why did she wait so long to say something?”

We decided to build off this last student’s thinking with this next question: What might be some reasons, then, why Tilly did not tell Errol a long time ago that she was a girl teddy? After the students processed this line of thinking, here are some of their developing theories:

  • “She didn’t want to tell because she still wanted to be friends and was scared he wouldn’t be friends.”
  • “She didn’t want to break up the friendship and hurt him.”
  • “Because Errol was a boy and he wanted a boy Teddy, not a girl. She wants to do girl stuff and they always do boy stuff.”
  • “Little kids might not understand how they act and Tilly waits for Errol to be an age he can understand. She didn’t want to ruin all the fun stuff.”

As the book continued, Tilly revealed her truth to Errol the boy, upon which he declared his stance that they will remain friends no matter what. The students were relieved that Errol continued his friendship with Tilly and Tilly felt empowered to express herself in whatever way made her feel comfortable, moving the ribbon she’s worn as a bowtie to her hair as a bow. Really, this book is such a beautiful illustration of the enduring depth of friendship and compassion.

Whole-Class Conversation

To create a space where the students could process the book in a deeper way and build upon classmate’s thinking, the students next engaged in a whole-class conversation. The teacher set up the context: “We have the ability to stretch the conversation outside of the text—this is making me think of the language we use. Let’s consider this idea from the beginning: What doesn’t change and why? Our goal is to build off other’s thinking to grow our ideas of off others, too. Let’s wait five seconds before we jump in so we can build onto others’ thinking and process.” The teacher handed over the conversation to the students. Here is the brilliance that transpired:

  • “The one thing that didn’t change is their relationship, their friendship.”
  • “It didn’t affect their friendship: they’re still friends.”
  • “I agree, Errol doesn’t care about her gender, he cares she’s a friend.”
  • “I agree, it hasn’t affected their friendship. She named the change and he didn’t care. Life just went on.”
  • “The relationship stayed the same—they still did the same things they loved.”
  • “When Errol found out, well it’s just a change in gender, I don’t care who they are before, I only care about they are my friend.”
  • “Outside the bow changed, but inside they’re still the same. They have the same relationship and do boy stuff and hang out more often.”
  • “All makes me think Errol and Ava [another friend in the story] are very accepting people because they both thought Tilly was Teddy but Errol didn’t care, Ava didn’t care. All they thought wasn’t true in the beginning—they are very accepting people.”

As we realized just how much the upper graders understood the message in the story, the teacher posed this question: What we can learn from this is…

  • “If you have a friend that wants to be a girl or boy, don’t give up your friendship.”
  • “Look at the front cover—that’s who she is, who she imagines herself to be.”
  • “It makes me think: that she was a girl on the inside instead of a boy.”
  • “Not to give up on a friendship when someone changes their appearance or what they feel on the inside.”
  • “She knew she was a girl inside, a boy on the outside. Now I can see you as a girl.”

Kids get it, right friends? To link this with the other stories we’d been exploring this identity work through this year, the teacher asked the students to consider Red: A Crayon’s Story, The Other Side, and Oliver Button Is a Sissy by Tomie dePaola (the teachers had been studying additional books, as they do so well, many of which I was unable to join them for!). In true fashion, here are some of the upper grader’s poignant assertions as they connected with other inclusive texts:

  • “It doesn’t matter black or white, boy or girl, they can be friends.”
  • “Black or white, you can be friends no matter what. Introducing Teddy, he thought he was a boy, but he was really a girl, so don’t give up on friendship.”
  • “In videogames, there are some characters of boys that can’t do it, so I don’t think of gender and I use the character I want.”
  • “There’s nothing wrong with a boy being friends with a girl.”
  • “The opposite gender, accept people for who they are, they are still human.”
  • “We shouldn’t treat anyone unfairly because of gender.”

Again, I’m going to name this: kids get it. Clearly, the upper graders followed the thread of the book and really focused mostly on the message of being friends no matter what and that boys and girls can be friends with one another. They really didn’t explore the notion of the transgender youth identity. So, the teacher and I decided not to, either, as we always try our best to build the curriculum off where children take it. To conclude our work with this book, for the time being, the teacher created an opportunity for students to do a quick reflective write, both living in the text and lifting thoughts off the page into “life” and the “world.” A few sentence stems to get students started are below, as well as some of the upper grader’s thoughts. I’ll give you some time to read through them…

No matter what, I love friends the way they are. I’m sitting with this child’s reflection for a while, as it reflects the way I wish for humanity to position themselves with friends and others around them, always. Don’t you? And I want you to know, this upper-grade teacher went on to read other inclusive texts such as R. J. Palacio’s Wonder and Alex Gino’s George, and the upper grader’s awareness, compassion, and empathetic hearts grew by leaps and bounds.

The primary grade teacher, knowing the beautiful book Introducing Teddy was a discussion around gender, mentioned it to their local site administrator, who also agreed the book was wonderful. Just to check-in, the site administrator went up the ladder to confirm support for reading this book. This is where the chapter ends for your glimpse into this beautiful primary classroom. Why you might ask? Because I have nothing to write. I have nothing to show you as to student thinking or work. I have nothing to reflect to you as to what transpired in the classroom as children’s empathetic hearts and minds grew by leaps and bounds like the upper grader student’s hearts and minds did.

Why? Because…

Because the primary grade teacher was told they were not supported in reading this book this year to their students. They could not proceed. So, I will leave a big blank space below where I wish with everything in my being the words of the primary students could live, their ideas could flourish, their realizations could amaze you.

You might be wondering why the book Introducing Teddy was not allowed to be read, right? That’s human nature to have a curious stance on the world around us, especially when we hear injustice against children. Why was this teacher told they were not allowed to read the book Introducing Teddy this school year? Honestly, does it matter? When an institution delivers the message that a book is not to be read to students, any reason given for this censorship of inclusive texts doesn’t matter because there is no justification for this stance, this message, this action.

None.

Ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can have -James Baldwin

To revisit the words of James Baldwin, that have rattled around in my brain and heart for a while now as I’ve tried to process the gravity of this situation, I have a growing rage in my heart toward institutional power that would seek to deny information to children to keep them unaware of the world around them. I can’t help it. I lead with a stance of love and hope that the compassion in our hearts will prevail and create conditions where we can come together to know one another in deep ways. This has been my stance for a long time now. But here, with this, I feel rage. That’s just my truth right now. When I reflect on what was just perpetuated upon the minds and hearts of the children who inhabit the spaces where this institution has power, it angers me deeply, it cuts my heart. I bleed and that’s just the truth of it. I don’t just bleed for my child, I bleed for the children that have been denied the chance to grow their already empathetic hearts even more, so perhaps one day when they meet my kid and his peers, they think, “Wow, just like Tilly. I understand it. I respect it. Let’s go play, friend.”

If school is a rehearsal for life, where children have the right “to come together in a community of care…to work out their life and death issues” through the books we read together and books that center LGBTQIA characters are keep out of classrooms and out of the hands of compassionate, wise educators, how are children ever to understand what it feels like to have an identity like my child and his peers? If we negate our responsibility, as caretakers of children, whether as parents, guardians, mentors, teachers, or whatever capacity we position ourselves with youth around us, to share the reality of the world we live in and use literacy as a pathway to access our deeper humanity, then where does that leave us? Are we playing with fire when we deny children the opportunity to form their own ideas based on access to information around them? Are we censoring access to information based on our own adult insecurities and hesitations? Tell me the justice of institutional censorship in moving our collective pursuit of justice for all forward?

These are questions I have no answer to right now. Well, that’s not exactly true. I do have one answer to give you. Actually, it’s not an answer, it’s an ask. While I understand to shift pedagogy, it centers on larger entities than a book, it centers on system shifts toward more inclusive practices. I get that. And while I get this isn’t just about a book, it is. Well, it is, and, it isn’t. It isn’t about a book, but more so, about what this book represents. It’s about access to information, knowledge, and opportunities to grow as human beings. It’s about the denial of access to these opportunities by the few affecting the many. So, it’s about what the book represents. If, after reading this, you are so deeply affected by the opportunity denied to these young children, I have a move for you to make. In her book, The Other Side, Jacqueline Woodson advocates for small acts of resistance. I do as well. Here’s my ask of you: read the book Introducing Teddy, and other inclusive texts, to the children in your life. If you are a teacher, read this book and other inclusive texts like it, to your students. If you’re an administrator, support your teachers in their pursuit of inclusive curriculum and texts in their classrooms. If you’re a director or superintendent, seek to understand why teachers believe this work is vital and books like these are essential in this work, and then visibly let them know they have your support in this critical work. If you’re a parent or guardian or grandparent, read these books to the kids in your life and have these honest conversations. If you have any stance with children in your life, I’d argue it’s your responsibility as an adult to provide the conditions within which children have access to the reality of the world so they can continue the work of building understanding, empathy, and respect toward one another. If you believe children are to inherit the world after we are gone, let them inherit it with knowledge, eyes wide open, hearts large, minds broad, and hands ready to do the work of building a more just world for one another.

One last thing to keep you lingering on your next move: I’m an adult, which positions me in our society with power, power that is systemically denied to children. As the daughter of Dr. King, Bernice King, recently said, “Love is not passive. Love does not cooperate with inhumanity. Love is an active force for peace, justice, and righteousness.” Ask yourself: How will you enact your love toward children? If you don’t want to take my word as to why inclusive texts are so impactful to our children, won’t you take the word of youth for truth? Here are upper graders’ words for you, urging you to take this big work on. Please read, ponder, and then I ask you to join us in moving forward to continue the work of doing right by ALL children.

[Here are two links, here and here, to inclusive book lists we’ve compiled, for your youngest readers. Please read through these lists, consider, and then go forth reading these beautifully inclusive books, with an open heart, to the children in your life.]

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Published with permission from the educator allies featured in this writing piece. -C

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To Be Flawed Is To Be Human

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 (for an exploration of the process we followed to explore this notion, visit reflections on the process here and here and here). 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.

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Published with permission from an educator ally, who is also a mother of a young trans child in our advocacy network. -C

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How Are We To Know Unless You Let Us? An Exploration of Access & Power

I will name a few painful truths I see of the world within which we live. Then, explore what some wise children (and their activist teachers) are doing to rise up and push back on these narratives. I hope to leave you with this truth: when conditions are created within which children can assert their agency against what they see as injustices in the world, their world, everyone’s heart and mind grows broader and may just be what makes all the difference in the end.

My Truth One: I’m a cisgender mama of a young visible transgender child.

My Truth Two: I’m an adult who feels ashamed to check off that identity box right now, but I have a feeling you can begin to help me shift this feeling. I hope.

My Truth Three: I’m an educator with eternal optimism and faith in educators’ hearts, talents, and commitment, but simultaneously believe the schooling system has perpetuated atrocities on the minds of children since its inception by denying them access to knowledge and tools for their own self-liberation. (Not educators as individuals, but the system within which we find ourselves navigating and pushing back on our entire careers).

With my truths named for you upfront, I now have an ask for you: please follow my journey of thought here. It’ll be a painful journey, certainly, and I fully expect many of you to close your browser or close this thought piece on your phone. Fair enough. Your choice to read on or not will not change the fact that I’ve more to say below. If you choose to honor me by reading on, you humble me.

Here’s what challenged my truths one, two, and three, all in one wise fifth grader’s response to her teacher today. Context, then let me back up, and then move forward with something that fills my eternal optimism with hope…

How are we to know unless you let us? were the honest words from a wise fifth grader today in class. My heart, already weary from the violence of words and actions that adults have perpetuated on the young souls of youth across this country these past months, past years, going back really decades, years, centuries, was cut deeper and bled this afternoon while studying in the incredibly amazing fifth-grade classroom within which I’ve been a faithful collaborator all year.

The Context

The incredibly prophetic teacher, Jamaica Ross (Ms. Ross gave us permission to use her name because she is incredibly proud of the deep work her students are doing along this journey and I’ll refer to as Ms. J in the rest of this thought piece), and I have been exploring topics around identity with her students all year long through the vehicle of the interactive read aloud. We’ve been expanding our knowledge of the identity of transgender children in Alex Gino’s groundbreaking middle-grade novel George these past few weeks. Today, our conversation around the book led us into an exploration of the concepts around justice and injustice, as a scene in the book gave many students a visceral reaction.

Let Me Back Up

I hear folks state this fact: many adults across the country are scared that books that center LGBTQ characters or themes might be brought into classrooms for children to read or be read to. They say these adults are scared of what might happen when youth gain knowledge about these topics. They say these adults are terrified, really, about what reading these books with LGBTQ-themed stories might do to our young, impressionable youth. Alex Gino said something quite poignant to a group of fifth-graders in NYC recently, “A book cannot make you trans, but can make you trans aware and accepting. There is no age before which to be compassionate.” Mic drop, right? Awareness is the first step in building empathy toward others. And, their assertion that there is no age before which to be compassionate? That’s the plain truth.

So, I ask you this: do you want a small window into what happens when adults honor children enough to trust that they can navigate big thinking around complex topics? If you’ve said yes, brilliant! In an attempt to paint a picture for you of one way this can look, I’m going to amply the voices, both through the written word and spoke word, of youth across the country, coast to coast. Granted, these are only windows into two sets of fifth-graders, one class in NYC and one in LA. While I acknowledge this is a small subset of the general population, well, it’s what I have access to provide you a window into and second, I ask you this additional question: where else are these glorious books being read in our elementary schools? Your classroom? Please reach out to me and share your experiences; we grow stronger together. Your town? Again, please reach out to me and tell me where, I’d love to hear about their story. The painful fact is, though, these books aren’t being read in elementary schools across the country for myriad reasons, reasons which my colleagues and I continue to unpack.

Consider this fact from the American Library Association, who compile a list of the top ten most challenged books yearly, as they make this poignant assertion: The American Library Association condemns censorship and works to ensure free access to information. Every year, the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) compiles a list of the Top Ten Most Challenged Books in order to inform the public about censorship in libraries and schools. The lists are based on information from media stories and voluntary challenge reports sent to OIF from communities across the United States. The lists are found here, for those of you that would like to read up on this further. The five top most challenged books for 2016 have one big thing in common as the reason stated for their challenging or eventual banning: LGBT characters or themes emerge in the book. Just look:

  • Book one, Mariko Tamaki’s This One Summer: “Challenged because it includes LGBT characters”
  • Book two, Raina Telgemeier’s Drama: “Challenged because it includes LGBT characters”
  • Book three, Alex Gino’s George: “Challenged because it includes a transgender child”
  • Book four: Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings’ I Am Jazz: “Challenged because it portrays a transgender child…and offensive viewpoints”
  • David Levithan’ Two Boys Kissing: “It was considered to include sexually explicit LGBT content”

Wow, the theme is crystal clear: books that center on LGBTQ characters or themes are central reasons as to why some adults across the country request these books be challenged and banned from their inclusion in school and classroom spaces. Consider what that means: denial of access to information by adults towards children. We’ll revisit this notion later.

So, back to this: what happens when these books, with trans characters and LGBTQ themes, are read to young groups of children and safe spaces are created within which children can process new their learnings, realizations, and wonderings with one another? THIS: their awareness and empathy grow. And, they rise, in mind, heart, and body. And here’s what I mean.

Here are some NYC 5th graders’ reflections on the experience of reading George as a read aloud this spring with their dynamic activist teacher Lauren Brown (Ms. Brown gave us permission to use her name because, as she enthusiastically expressed, she wants to be visibly tied to the work because she is so proud of her students’ thinking and work). All student work is represented in an original unedited form to honor the agency of these young thinkers.

Building Awareness

“This story effected me like no other. It changed the way I see people and it helps me realize how hard it is to be yourself. I am gratefull to have people who are Lesbian, Gay, Bysexual, Transgender, Qeer and many more types of people in my community…I also thank Alex Gino for writing this book. It can change the world.”

“I think it will inspire people and teach people how to be respectful of people who are transgender and to call them by the name they want to be called. The book also teaches you how to respond, if you’re a good friend of their’s or a parrent when he or she come out to you.”

“The book George also made me think how awful it is that through out history people haven’t been able to be themself, either because of their skin color or their religion or anything else.”

“This book was amazing it really got to me and my classmates I think that it is important to let kids know about these things and this book showed it amazingly.”

“This book means alot to me because theres not alot of books out there like this about trangender people and I think there should be alot more books like this. I think this book will inspire kids to be there selfs and that they can be who ever they want to be.”

“I feels this book is important to me because it shows that something sosiety may think is wierd is actually not like for example it’s considered wierd if a boy likes pink or if you are trans. I think it is important to learn about these things at a young age because you will know better in the outside world.”

Deepening Empathy

“I think this book taught me all about Transgender people, and how hard the struggle is to be who you are, and inspired me to have a more open mind about who people are and made me notice, and want to fix, all the sexist, and racist, and unfair things in the world.”

“It’s telling people to stand up for what they think is right, and its showing that you always have to be yourself no matter what other people tell you to do or who to be. Because theres only “one” you, and no body else is the same it’s a very powerful story because it shows the struggle and how Mellissa’s story begins. It also shows what it was like to be her, and everything she had to overcome. Mellissa is an examples of “follow your heart” because she did what she thought was right with many struggles to overcome.”

“What this book means to me is that anyone can be who they want to be and that you have to look out for people who had trouble like Mellisa and instead of being like rick and letting someone like Jeff hurt them you should stand up to them and accept of who they want to be because that person is probley going through a hard time. This is what this book means to me because some kids get tortured every day and have to keep transfiring school until someone like Kelly is there to help them. Also some kids get kicked out of their house if they tell their guardian their LGBTQIA. But mostly I think we should but ourself in Melissa shoes how would you feel if you were teased about being a boy and acting like a girl.”

“This book taught me about other people feelings which helped me be more considerate of other people.”

“This book means alot to me. it has taught many things I did not know about before. For instance, learning how to be as respectful and kind to the LGBTQIA community.” “Furtheremore it has taught that I should be who I want to be and not what other people want me to be. In conclusion, this book has been a great experience for me and taught me how to be the best person I can be.”

A Move Forward

As a parent, as an educator, as a community member surrounded by children, I’m going to ask you to imagine with me for a moment.  Get an image of the children with whom you have contact daily or weekly. Take a moment to imagine them in your mind’s eye. Ready? Now, consider them when you read this excerpt from Maya Angelou prophetic poem entitled Still I Rise:

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?

Bowed head and lowered eyes?

Shoulders falling down like teardrops,

Weakened by my soulful cries?

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I’ll rise.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

Student’s Rise into Action

Two children rose up. Yep, I witnessed it with my own eyes and I’ll attempt to paint the picture for you. This is what I witnessed one rainy day during lunch in Ms. Brown’s NYC classroom: two fifth-graders sat down with author Alex Gino to ask them about a list of trans themed books they were compiling. When asked a bit about the background of this list, here’s what we all found out. These two girls, inspired by the book George, that they’d just finished reading in their class, had decided upon this truth: why did they just learn about the trans identity and the trans community now in fifth grade? Why hadn’t they learned about this and read books about this earlier in their life? They decide that they wanted children in their school to have access to books at all levels earlier than fifth grade so they could understand what this identity was all about at younger ages.  So, here’s what they did (mind you, I’m tearing up just reliving this moment of revelation). They began a lemonade stand. Yep, a lemonade stand on the street in the middle of New York City. They earned $136. They took this $136 to the school library and told their school librarian that they wanted to purchase trans inclusive texts at all grade levels for the school so that kids at all ages could read about this before reaching fifth grade. And, with Alex Gino on campus for an author’s visit day in May, they sat down with them at lunch to make sure their list of books was mindful and asked them for any additional books to add to the list. Below is their write-up of their experience. Take a few minutes to really read through it and reflect upon what these two young children actually began: The Zosie Transgender Rights Organization:

 

Perhaps you noticed the two printed tweets on the bottom left and right (sorry, I had to amplify their activism right away…spread their idea into the world in big ways, right?). One of the girl’s moms responded to her daughter’s activism on the tweet thread: “As the mom of one of these students, I’m so proud of them! Their vision, ideas and FOLLOW THRU to make change. Bravo!” In case you were wondering how parents responded to their children reading George and learning about the trans identity, here’s one feeling: PRIDE.

Big Work To Be Done

So, let’s circle back to today, shall we, and revisit one 5th grader’s statement in Los Angeles when her class was tackling chapter 5 of Alex Gino’s George. Remember she asked this pointed question, “How are we to know unless you let us?” In response to a scene in the book where Melissa, a fourth-grade transgender girl who has yet to reveal her truth to anyone in this part of the book, tries out for a school play of Charlotte’s Web. She presents visibly as male, so she is told by the adult holding the auditions she may only try out for the male characters in the story. She, instead, decides to live her truth by trying out for the part of Charlotte the spider. Once Melissa finished Charlotte’s monologue, this is how the adult reacted, both through actions and words: “Ms. Udell was frowning, and a think crease had formed across her forehead.” “Was that supposed to be some kind of joke? Because it wasn’t very funny.” “You know I can’t very well cast you as Charlotte…Besides, imagine how confused people would be.” “Ms. Udell pushed her chair back into the classroom, shaking her head.” (pg. 70-71).

In a silent conversation response, Ms. J’s students were asked to respond to this thinking stem, What are you trying to figure out right now with regards to the book, the characters, events, topics, our study? Many of the student responses centered around trying to figure out why an adult would react this way, both by words and actions, toward a child just trying to live their truth. From their words:

“What I am trying to figure out is why doesn’t Ms. Udell be accepting to what people want to do that’s unusual?”

“What I’m trying to figure out is why Ms. Udell was being so rude about George [Melissa] wanting to be Charlotte.”

“I think Ms. Udell was being rude because she thinks it is weird seeing a boy wanting to try out for a girl part.”

“Me, too because she did not care about how she feels.”

“George feel sad because the teacher thinks it was a joke but it was nerves to talk.”

“I agree because George [Melissa] was telling the truth but they never believe and thought it was a joke.”

“Also the fact that Ms Udell said is that a joke boy doing a girl part when she said joke gorge went blank.”

“She is letting girls do their part but not vice-verse so people aren’t free.”

Catch that? …people aren’t free.

Concept Building: Exploring Language

As Ms. J and I reflected upon these wonderings from her students later that night, it struck us: children were reacting against the adult’s treatment of a child, both by the adult’s words and actions. They were reacting against the oppressive nature of the positionality of the adult and the child in the story. To facilitate her student’s unpacking of this concept of the often unjust nature of the power structure between the identity of adults and children, we decided to follow a line of thought before beginning the next chapter the following day. Ms. J began the conversation with this question: Justice: when you hear that word, what do you think? What does it mean to you, think maybe of a song, poem or phrase you’ve heard. Below are some of her student’s responses as they tackled their understanding of the concept of justice.

Building a Context for Empathy

To make this concept of justice even more concrete for her students, Ms. J asked them this question: Think about a time when you’ve been told no—no ice cream, no toy at the store, no I don’t want to be friends with you, no I don’t accept you for who you are. It gives you a feeling. How does that make you feel or imagine how you’d feel. Her students met with a partner to share their ideas before revealing their truths as a whole class. Below are the ideas generated from the question:

Agency and Power

Ms. J continued to facilitate her students’ thinking by stating that when people are not accepting who you are, all of those feelings occur. This is when one of her students asked this pointed question: “Why doesn’t Ms. Udell understand? She’s an adult.” And here’s where students began to put the pieces of the conversations we’d been facilitating for weeks together. A student responded with this truth: “On the ladder of privilege (written about at length in this reflection here) transgender falls down on the ladder—she’s against it and she doesn’t accept it or hear about it.” “Because maybe Ms. Udell thinks Melissa doesn’t know about that stuff and Melissa is just playing around.” “Yeah, because in fourth grade, I didn’t know about being transgender.”

Ms. J chose to support her students’ lines of thought around the concept of adult power over children, by layering in exploration around the idea of agency next. She stated, “Melissa wants to play Charlotte but the adult in the story takes away her agency.” After defining what agency was, she stated that it was dangerous to take away one’s power and choice and that the adult in the story does this visibly in two ways: both by her actions (shaking her head, not letting Melissa try out for the part of Charlotte) and by her words (saying, “Is this a joke?”).

To continue to support her students’ understanding of the concepts of agency and power, Ms. J asked her students to consider this question, What would you think if someone said I couldn’t read George in class? What do you think about that? After giving them time to process with a partner, here are some of her students’ thoughts. Get ready, because herein lies the crux of the point I’m trying to make: when adults make the conscious decision to deny children access to information, texts, and experiences to explore the world around them in the context of the classroom, they essentially rob children of their agency to build their knowledge base and to gain tools within which to push back on the injustices in the world.

“That’s rude. This is someone just trying to teach about this and prepare kids for the future. It’s great to hear from our teacher about this, she’s being open about her life. You must not care about the trans community if you won’t let her read this book.”

“That person is messed up that they don’t want to share this information with students.”

“That’s rude because we have to learn about transgender so we don’t feel weird about the transgender community.”

“If that person said no, they are probably immature because they don’t think kids are ready and we’ll joke around and not take it seriously.”

“Adults just think kids are not mature enough, but this is maturing kids.”

“Whoever says no isn’t ready for the book themselves—they are just scared. Or don’t want to know—scared about the facts.”

“That person is just rude. Knowing about trans, gay, lesbian people, that’s maturing us on how to respect people, like using she not he. How are we to know unless you let us? You are maturing us. You don’t have to do this; you’re choosing to do this so when we come across people, we know how to do this.”

Injustice

Ms. J decided to name the elephant in the room that her students were edging toward at this point and tackle the concept of injustice in this context. She stated: “This is the absolute opposite of justice. This would be called injustice. We need to learn this. And, this injustice is happening in the world.” She went on to say that in some places, adults are telling teachers they cannot read books like George, and others she’s read to her students this year that explore similar themes. Plenty of evidence nationwide supports this fact that censorship is alive and well in our national culture, if we think back to the top five challenged books from the ALA’s 2016 research, right? Her students were viscerally shocked, with one little boy, jaw-dropping to the ground, stating, “What, the book about the bear? But that’s such a good book.” Yes, kiddo, I agree. It is such a good book and yep, even that one. Before she continued her read aloud of the next chapter of George, she left her students with this thought to linger upon: “What can kids do about that? Now that we have this information, what are our responsibilities to do? Our minds are broad and open, more than others. You have a responsibility. What are you going to do to push back with the knowledge you have? This knowledge is allowing us to push back. You guys have a lot of power. What will we do with it?”

Responsibility to Speak Truth to Power

Phew. Wow! Let’s take a breath and pause to process this artful tapestry of thought Ms. J just wove with her students. Ready? I keep circling back to this one line from Grace Paley’s poem entitled Responsibility, explored in this thought piece at greater length here, as I process what I witnessed in her classroom today: “It is the poet’s responsibility to speak truth to power.” I’m going to suggest something to push this line further, though: it’s also children’s responsibility to speak truth to power. And you know something I steadfastly believe? They do. Children do every day. But here’s my concern: Are we listening? Are adults being mindful of the words our children, our students, the youth around us are speaking every day? It’s our grave responsibility to listen. To listen up to our children’s truths, to our student’s truths, to our youth’s truths. Why? Because on the ladder of societal privilege, we hold the power. We can render children silent and powerless. We can render them invisible by our words and actions. We have a grave responsibility to do right by them. I believe this starts with listening. Listening with the intention of knowing their authentic selves in our homes, our classrooms, our communities. Then, following this up with creating safe spaces where their ideas have a platform for expression, and others hear their words, their ideas, their perspectives. And then, a responsibility to act. To act upon the injustices we see perpetuated upon the souls of children we advocate for daily across the nation in our homes, our schools, our communities. When children look to us as the power-holding adults in their lives and ask of us to act, our only humane response should be to act: act swiftly, mindfully, and justly on behalf of ALL children. And now a painful truth that I urge us to examine while looking in a collective mirror as adults and reflecting upon the truths these fifth graders expressed about how vital they think it is that we read trans inclusive texts in our home, our schools, our communities:

How dare we use our adult power to deny children authentic opportunities to voice their ideas and to be truly listened to.

How dare we use our adult power to deny children access to information in our homes, schools, communities.

How dare we think so little of children and teachers to challenge books with the intent of keeping them out of the hands of skillful teachers to read them and facilitate revolutionary conversations with students that build their awareness, depth of empathy, and create spaces for students to rehearse “life stuff.”

As that one wise fifth-grader in Los Angeles stated, “How are we to know unless you let us?” Students trust us to provide them access to what they’ll need to navigate life, not just school. Are we doing right by them? Are we robbing them of the experiences these two sets of students had when they studied the trans-inclusive text George on their respective coasts?

I’ll leave you with this idea to consider, and I hope you do: Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, recently met with President Obama, and wrote this response to their meeting: “How do we get young leaders to take action in their communities? Thanks, @BarackObama for your visit & insights tonight in my hometown.” One way? By creating the conditions within which youth gain the tools for self-liberation, their actions are amplified, and they grow into adulthood empowered. Love is actionable. Respect is actionable. Trust, that’s actionable, too. Trust that children can tackle these complex conversations and rise up in big action. Trust that children can read these books with LGBTQ themes and characters and come out on the other side not only more empowered but with larger awareness, broader minds, and bigger hearts. Won’t you join my colleagues and me and the glorious children doing this powerful work? I bet you will, or perhaps already are in powerful ways, in your homes, your schools, and your communities. Together, we rise.

__

Published with permission from an educator ally, who is also a mother of a young trans child in our advocacy network. -C

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Love Justice: School as a Rehearsal for Life

I’m going to begin this reflection with a poem by the American writer, poet, teacher, and political activist Grace Paley. A dear mentor recently introduced me this poem to me and it resonated with my heart in such a visceral way. I’d be humbled if you honored me with a quick read of it. I’ll circle back to it in this reflection, I promise. For this moment, though, please read it and feel.

Responsibility

It is the responsibility of society to let the poet be a poet

It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman

It is the responsibility of the poet to stand on street corners giving out poems and beautifully written leaflets also leaflets you can hardly bear to look at because of the screaming rhetoric

It is the responsibility of the poet to be lazy to hang out and prophesy

It is the responsibility of the poet not to pay war taxes

It is the responsibility of the poet to go in and out of ivory towers and two-room apartments on Avenue C and buckwheat fields and army camps

It is the responsibility of the male poet to be a woman

It is the responsibility of the female poet to be a woman

It is the poet’s responsibility to speak truth to power as the Quakers say

It is the poet’s responsibility to learn the truth from the powerless

It is the responsibility of the poet to say many times: there is no freedom without justice and this means economic justice and love justice

It is the responsibility of the poet to sing this in all the original and traditional tunes of singing and telling poems

It is the responsibility of the poet to listen to gossip and pass it on in the way storytellers decant the story of life

There is no freedom without fear and bravery there is no freedom unless earth and air and water continue and children also continue

It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman to keep an eye on this world and cry out like Cassandra, but be listened to this time.

My grandfather was a high school English and theater arts teacher. He taught me to love prose and poetry in a deeply reverent way. He would send me cards with his original haikus and limericks he wrote especially for me. He would send me books full of love poems and Shakespearean sonnets, thinking I was never too young to delve into the complex world of longing and tragedy. I developed a deep appreciation of the written word through his eyes at a young age. A gift I’ve treasured my entire life. My grandmother was a community college philosophy professor. She taught me the love of the spoken word and the art of the circular argument, and most importantly, how to get out of one. She was a trailblazing woman in higher education at a time when women weren’t given their due in academic circles in the 1960s and 70s. She lived through poverty and hardships, losing her first daughter to the state for lack of resources to care for her when she was a baby. She lived through three husbands and dreams lost due to life’s struggles. She was a political activist and an all-around fierce woman. My mother was an elementary school teacher for thirty years. She taught the littlest ones, choosing to begin the first decade of her teaching career in the amazingly complex city of Watts, California through the decade of the 1970s. She immersed herself into the community within which she taught, knowing her families well and looking to know the child, not just the student. An important distinction that’s had a profound effect on my perspective in my own teaching career these past nearly two decades. My dear friend, J, is an amazing human being who I’ve come to think the world of. She’s a colleague, a teacher, and a fierce woman who lives her activist stance in the classroom with her students. I’ve learned so much from our friendship and professional relationship. She is a woman who inspires my daily work. You should know her one day: I hope through my words that you will.

What does each of these human beings have in common, other than the admiration I have for all of them in a deep way? They all fiercely live or lived their truth for the benefit of their students. And, they know or knew something important about the responsibility we all have toward one another. And that, my friends, is what this reflection is about: How do we, as human beings who also happen to be educators, responsibly live our lives in the service of the children who inhabit our classrooms? And for the sake of transparency, I’ll be upfront with this truth: I’m going to have an ask of you at the end of this reflection. I hope you’ll do me the honor of considering it.

Let’s revisit Ms. Daley’s words once more and focus on the parts that profoundly touched my heart and my conscience and made the work that Ms. J did in her fifth-grade classroom all the more profound.

It is the poet’s responsibility to learn the truth from the powerless 

Those with no voice are often powerless. Without power, one has little room for self-liberation, and thus, freedom. Herein lies the tension for me as an educator. I fiercely disagree with the statement that children are powerless. Children are honest and possess a raw truth. Children are wise. Children are our future and I learn more from them each day than I do from most adults. That named, I believe that society has a different truth for children: I see children consistently being talked over, talked around, or talked for. I see children being silenced. I see children’s voice, knowledge and perspective being discounted, discredited, and ignored. You may say to yourself, “Oh no, not my children or my students or the kids I know.” And I agree, not yours. But, in the view of society as a hegemonic structure that seeks to violently protect and maintain the status quo and dodge most attempts at confronting the patriarchal, sexist, racist, homophobic, and transphobic inequities that pervade its very core, I see this truth about children’s and youth’s positionality alive and well. And, I’ll name this truth, too: it’s violence against children perpetuated by a society that needs to desperately shift in systemic ways. And shift now.

It is the responsibility of the poet to say many times: there is no freedom without justice and this means…love justice

There is no freedom without justice. What does this mean to you? What does freedom mean to you? What does it look like? Is it access and who has this access? Is it choice and who has the right to make choices? Is it opportunity and who has access to opportunities in our society? What does justice look like and feel like to you, especially for children? One can easily recognize injustice, right, but if you were asked to name what justice looks like for children, ALL children, what would you say? Think about this for a moment. Then, think this concept, one I borrow from a wise mentor of mine: the distinction between our realm of influence and our realm of concern. He names our realm of influence as tangible spaces we can effect change and our realm of concern as all the things that we see so desperately need to change but may be out of our control (paraphrasing here, of course). As educators and compassionate human beings, what is within our realm of influence to change so that we edge closer to what we see as just for ALL children? As a classroom teacher, literacy coach, staff developer and educational research for the past seventeen years, I assert this: what is, and has always been, within our realm of influence, is our classroom. This is our true realm of influence where we have the responsibly and opportunity to live our truth as activist teachers. I hope you’d agree with me here.

In her first novel, Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee asserts, “…it’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are. If you can master that trick, you’ll get along.” (p. 269). This is tricky, right, seeing who we are today. It takes a steady conscience and spirit of growth to do this challenging introspective work of living our life in revision. I have faith all educators can do this, though, because we come to this work out of a desire to serve children and serve them justly. So, I’ll have you do me this wee favor: ask yourself, “Does my classroom reflect the truths I wish were reflected in our society for ALL children?” If you answered yes, I want to live in your classroom, I want my kid to live in there, too. If you answered no (and thank you for your honesty), why not? What’s giving you pause? I get it. This is hard work. But I also want you to consider this: if not you, then who? If not now, then when? If not for my kid and his trans peers, then for who? What are the conditions within which you’ll find space to begin the process of outgrowing your best self and moving in big ways on behalf of ALL children tomorrow, this summer, next school year?

Additionally, what’s wrong with creating our classrooms in the image of the world we wish we all lived in? What’s wrong with using the space we create in our classrooms as a rehearsal for the things kids are going to confront in their life? The conversations they are going to have? The situations they’re going to navigate on their own? Having a chance to rehearse some of these “life things” in a space they feel valued, trusted, and honored, why not create this space? What’s the problem with this? We should do it, right? We can agree on that at least.

Here’s the tricky part, though: how do we do this? How, you might be wondering, right? I get it, bringing in the identities of our students, perhaps our LGBTQIA identifying youth specifically in the elementary grades, is new to so many of us across the country. I understand that this identity at a young age is new to many educators. Believe me, I understand, I was you once, too. You know something, though. You know who this identity is not new to? The kid living it. His peers. The trans identity, or any identity for that matter, isn’t new for the kid living it. So, it’s our responsibility as adults who love and teach and inspire our kids daily to step up to the responsibility of this deep work and do everything we have in our power to do right by our students. There is no freedom without justice…love justice. We cannot liberate others, but we can create the conditions within which children grow to liberate themselves out of this patriarchal, sexist, racist, homophobic, and transphobic society within which they’ve been born. It is our grave responsibility to create these conditions within our classrooms and school cultures. If not, I’d assert it is violence against children to ignore this responsibly.

There is no freedom without fear and bravery

At the ripe young age of thirty-nine, I acknowledge my positionality in this work is raw and unrefined. Yet, I press on and work through my fear: my life’s work is too critical to spend time in the unproductive space of self-doubt. It takes bravery, tireless work of shedding one’s skin, and revising one’s sense of the world (and a dope crew, I might add). Truthfully, I’ve been fearful every day since my young child emerged to the world as a visible transgender boy nearly a year ago. I’ve lived in the tangible fear of what this means for his daily life and the abstract fear of what this means for his life ahead. Likewise, I’ve seen the bravery of a person triple his age emerge from his very being, that which has accelerated my own daily acts of bravery in myriad ways. If a nine-year-old can find his voice to stand tall for who he is and self-advocate in bold ways, what excuse does a thirty-nine-year-old have for living in fear and not following suit with brave acts? None. So, I have. And it’s been messy and painful and real. But I’ve been fortunate that so many around me have joined me on this journey, too.

With all of this said, I want to make this very concrete. And here’s how I’ve decided to do that for you: with an example of how one teacher lived this truth of fierce bravery as she worked to create the classroom she hoped the world would become one day so her students gained the tools to liberate themselves and seek the freedom she knew was their truth. You may see yourself in her stance and action; beautiful. She may inspire you to take act in bigger ways next school year; amazing. You may not yet see your path in all this; and that’s okay, but please reach out, we’re in this together.

A bit of context, then some analysis, then a few final thoughts.

I’ve been studying with Ms. J and her fifth graders this entire school year, jumping in to try out some of my “literacy research things” and to observe the brilliance that is her teaching. In her classroom recently, continuing my research with her amazing students, I made this statement to her: I believe school is a rehearsal for life. The moment I named this aloud, she steadfastly scribbled it down in her notebook. I paused. I said that statement again in my mind and then realized what Ms. J had been cultivating in her classroom culture, her methodology, and her curriculum all served this exact central purpose: creating a space in the classroom so her students could rehearse life before life was thrown at them so forcefully the next year in middle school and frankly, for the years to come. Ms. J and I had taken on the big task of exploring students’ multiple identities through the methodology of the interactive read aloud across the school year. She knew the power of a good book, knew the way to plan a dope read aloud, knew the way to facilitate a deep conversation among her students, and most importantly, she knew when to refrain from speaking to enable her students to take ownership over conversations (each of these talents were learned over time and are areas I intend to explore in future writings). With this foundation well established in her classroom, she and I decided to tackle one more read aloud and one more identity before the year’s end: that of a transgender child through our exploration of Alex Gino’s George during her daily interactive read aloud.

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” are famous words spoken by the legendary poet, writer, actress, and activist Maya Angelou and they encapsulate how it feels to be a member of Ms. J’s classroom culture. So, when Ms. J began reading George and realized many of her students, actually most, had never really explored or talked about the trans identity in their lives before, we knew it would be a huge opportunity and more importantly, critical responsibly for she and I to facilitate her student’s ability to talk about the trans community in a respectful and knowledgeable way. We looked at it as a bit of a rehearsal for life so when her students immerged into the world and became friends with future trans middle and high schoolers or found themselves chatting it up with a trans person on the weekend at the local coffee shop or skatepark, they’d have some decent practice at using respectful language and respecting the identity as one of the myriad diversities of life that the trans identity is. To borrow a sentiment from George’s author, Alex Gino, “I don’t care if cisgender people understand what it’s like to be trans. I want them to respect it.” As a mother of a young transgender boy, I agree. While I’d love for the world to understand what it’s like to be trans, they won’t truly ever understand. So, I spend my time working toward the goal of folks respecting, honoring, and privileging his identity through their words and their actions.

Ms. J tackled this rehearsal for life work in a myriad ways, but I’ll outline three key ways she accomplished this through the power of reflection: reflecting upon ways to talk about the book through the author’s own suggestions, creating conditions within which students could reflect on their immerging questions through the written word (channeling my grandpa here…), and a space for her students to process their thinking through the power of the spoken work in conversations (channeling my grandma here…).

Reflections Through a Study of How to Talk about the Book George:

Ms. J, in seeking ways to gain knowledge about an identity she was admittedly less familiar with, sought out resources to educate herself and in so doing, found resources that she could use to give context and content to her students. One of many of these resources was an article author Alex Gino wrote to accompany their book that had suggestions on how to talk respectfully about the book and the characters within: it addressed how to talk about pronouns, the name of the main character, how to refer to her identity, and so on. This was all amazingly important information that informed the moves that Ms. J made in setting up the context of the book for her students. But, this is not what stood out to me, as a consultant, researcher, and honestly, observer in awe of her amazingness and that of her students. Here’s her simple, yet powerful statement that stood out to me and created the most critical context for the work at hand. Ms. J said to her students, before beginning chapter one, “It’s important to know how to be respectful in addressing others and how they want to be addressed. We’re going to learn about it in George and then shift it into our real world.” Right there. Did you catch that subtle statement? I bet you did. If not, I’ll name it for you, “…then shift it into our real world.” This. This is critical: naming the why in everything we do as teachers. It honors our students in the fact that we respect their ability to understand the reasoning behind why we choose to spend our time on a thing in class while also sending the clear message that all we do in the classroom can be and should be applied to the real world outside our four walls. Simple, right? Ms. J was using her classroom as an incubator for life: enabling her students in a safe, supportive, respectful environment to explore unfamiliar ideas and gain knowledge and tools for talking about them, so when game time came in real life, they’d have preparation on how to tackle the real work of respectfully interacting with and respecting trans folks in their life. I imagine most students may not be having these conversations around the trans community in other realms of their lives, so the context of the safe classroom environment, where their voice is honored and growth mindset is encouraged, is one ideal place this big work to happen. And big it is, indeed because ask yourself this: when did you learn to talk respectfully about the trans community with socially accepted terms in an informed way? In fifth grade? Nope. Probably when I did, in this last year; or perhaps you’re ahead of me, or perhaps you’re seeking to join me. Wherever you find yourself on this spectrum, we can all agree the classroom is a beautiful place for our rehearsal for life, right?

Reflections Through the Written Word: Stop & Jot and The Silent Conversation

Ms. J did two things to encourage students to process their understanding of the book, the main character Melissa, and their growing understanding of the concepts of transgender people. First, she had students bring a notebook with them to the meeting area during the read aloud. They jotted ideas as she read along and she also paused at key spots in the book or noticed when they reacted to something and created space for them to process their ideas in their notebook. This teaching methodology aligns with a Balanced Literacy and workshop approach to the teaching of reading and writing. Many of you are well-versed in this methodology to encourage your students’ thinking to grow in reflective ways. If this is you, nice. If this resonates with you and you’d like to jump in as Ms. J did, do it.

The second thing Ms. J did to encourage her students to process their immerging thinking during the interactive read aloud of George was the technique of the silent conversation. For example, at the end of chapter one, Ms. J had her students grab a piece of loose-leaf lined paper and consider this open-ended question: “What are you trying to figure out right now?” Students jotted their ideas at the top of the paper. They then passed this paper to the student to their left. They were now instructed to read their peer’s idea and then add onto that idea, perhaps to clarify, add onto, respectfully disagree, push their thinking further, and so on. This cycle of pass, read, and respond went along until each student got their original paper back. They then read all the responses to their original idea to process it further. This was a great formative assessment for Ms. J and I to notice what students were tackling in their understanding so we could respond to and imbed these ideas across the coming days of read aloud.  Most powerful, though, was to have a space in the classroom for students to voice their ideas through the written word and to have these thoughts metaphorically heard by their peers and responded to in multiple responses. Those who have voice have power. Those who hold power gain tools for their own liberation. The more students have the opportunity in a classroom to have their voice heard, honored through thoughtful responses, and made to feel they are a valued part of a community that seeks to learn from their perspective, the more their stance as having agency over their own personhood is reinforced. Overtime, this becomes the foundation within which the tools of liberation emerge. That’s powerful.

Reflections Through the Spoken Word: A Grand Conversation

Ms. J did multiple things to encourage an open dialogue around immerging understanding of the concepts imbedded within the book George, two of which I’ll highlight here. First, she designed her read aloud to incorporate many opportunities within which students could pause and chat with a partner to clarify ideas on their mind and ask questions of the partner, all serving the purpose of processing thinking publicly with a peer.  Honoring students’ voice by creating space for them to bounce ideas off one another as a way of processing new information is incredibly respectful of the social nature of learning. The one doing the talking is the one doing the learning research has found. If kids are talking, they are learning. The more we embed purposeful places for talk to occur, the more our students are rehearsing for the life work of processing the world around them.

Secondly, she had students build upon one another’s thinking in a whole class grand conversation at the end of the chapters. This enabled the cross dissemination of ideas among all her students. She astutely framed the context of this with this statement, “We are going to talk respectfully about the characters so we can respectfully talk about it in life. You are good character watchers, so we’re going to put what we learned from the book and bring it into life.” She and I were also able to hear all the comments being made and interject with ideas if needed. Mainly, though, her students facilitated the conversation, added onto one another’s thinking, respectfully disagreed when needed, and had a space to come to a larger shared understanding of the information immerging in the book. In essence, if her students are good character watchers in books, perhaps they’d be good people watchers in life, too. If they are well-versed in talking about the trans identity with the characters in a book in the classroom, they might become well-versed at talking respectfully with trans people in the real world, too. A rehearsal for life, right?

Love Justice

If we can imagine the realm of influence we have, and as educators we can agree that our classrooms are the most powerful places we have influence over, wouldn’t it make sense to live our beliefs in action in these spaces? Wouldn’t it make the most sense if we want for our children better than we had for ourselves, better for our students than what we had as students, better for our society than it deems to offer to us today, that we’d begin to or continue to disrupt these systems that lead to inequitable outcomes for many vulnerable populations of children, including my son and his trans peers? In her poem, Responsibility, Grace Paley introduced me to a new concept that is going to guide me in big ways in the way within which I position my life’s work: love justice. I want the world to be just for ALL children and I think a big part of this work comes through love. I steadfastly believe that love is a verb: it is not enacted through words and sentiments but through actions. I ask myself this question daily, “Are my actions toward others conveying the deep love I have for them? Do they feel my love in actionable ways that honor their voice, empower their position in the spaces we occupy together, and respect their perspectives in authentic ways? Do all students see themselves in the fabric of their classroom tapestry? Do we provide curriculum that incorporates the multiple identities that walk through our classroom doors day in and day out, year after year?” These are big questions. I sit with them. I hope you sit with them, too. I still live in the fear, I know you probably do, too. But, I welcome you to join me in the brave, too. It’s the only way we move forward.

So here is my ask of you, the question I hope you consider this summer as you rejuvenate your spirit and imagine the students that will inhabit your classroom community next year: “Are your actions toward your students conveying the deep love you have for them? Are you living your goal of love justice for ALL of your students?”

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Published with permission from an educator ally, who is also a mother of a young trans child in our advocacy network. -C

Categories
advocacy oppression parent power Privilege trans child

Pushing the River Upstream

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This is not how I initially intended to begin this reflection. But here’s the thing: this writing is going to be way too long. I recognize this truth. And, I’m going to name something that no writer would ever want to admit to themselves, much less aloud: most of you will not make it to the end of this reflection, unless of course you’re my mama and she’s reading to the bitter end out of loyalty and love for her daughter; she’s that kind of mama. I’m sorry, but I know this truth. There’s no way I want to edit anything out. So, here in lies the tension, right? So, instead of leading how I originally intended to, I’m going to lead with this: I am in my infancy in this work. I acknowledge my perspective is raw, unrefined, and I’ll probably cringe when reading it in a year, six months even. So many incredibly poignant people have been doing this work for many tireless decades, even many more of whom I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t even know of yet (and I should). So, I’m going to lead with what I was going to end with: this is about my debt of gratitude to you for shaping my life’s work in powerful ways you’ll probably never know. I am indebted to you for influencing my thinking, inspiring my perspective, for allowing your work to leave a mark on my mind and heart, and allowing me to admire you from afar or closely alongside you. This list includes those I admire and strive to be like one day when I grow up: activist teachers, teacher educators, scholars and researchers, writers, poets, and artists. This post is about what you have inspired me to rethink, revise, and have the courage to act upon. I must name those that have inspired my thoughts for this reflection and those that I look to faithfully to learn and grow from daily. This is for all of you and the children and families you selflessly support by your shear presence in this work (and if you’re on Twitter, follow these people): @GEduJamaica @laurenebrown19 @Jess5th @ShanMcGookin @flydaskys @tianasilvas @MisterMinor @pranikoff @ACasimirSiar @DrStachowiak @DrMaryHoward @suzrolander @jdolci @lxgino @amipolonsky @daywells @YehCathery @i_am_kdp @AmyFabrikant @RusulAlrubail @ShawnaCoppola @GeorgiaHeard1 @pernilleripp @SaraKAhmed @Kishahowell3 @erintheeducator @iChrisLehman @ernestmorrell @TyroneCHoward @drgravityg @RosaIsiah @The JLV @KatherineBomer  @MotivateEducate @bridgelitgap1 @mdawriter @BethGillis @JuliaPledl  @acuteteacher @growingjessica @Reginagrowinged @traviszinnel @hayhurst2 @bennanamy @ClintSmithIII @chrisemdin @HSamyAlim @rachelkwoodward @mel_katzz @MzUrbanEducator @christipedigo & countless other mentors who haven’t discovered the connective web of Twitter, I am indebted to you all, too.

Now, let’s get to it. This reflection is about privilege, power, and oppression.

Not just my privilege and power, nor just yours. But collective privilege and power. And oppression. Systemic oppression. And, pushing back. Pushing back against systemic oppression and pushing back against the notions of privilege and power in tangible actionable ways. At least, that’s my hope in writing this tonight.

If you, as my reader, are willing to continue reading and allowing me the space to expose my shedding of layers over this past year, I appreciate your trust in this process. If this focus on privilege, power, and oppression feels like a conversation you’d rather not have right now, for whatever reason(s) bring you to this space, I respect your choice. I’ll catch up with you on my next reflection. If you’ve come to understand, long ago in your life when you were a child or an adolescent or a younger adult, what I’m going to attempt to sort out and make sense of in my head, and you find yourself thinking, “Now? She’s processing all of this now in her adult life?” and feel frustration or anger at me over this realization, I apologize. Genuinely, I do. If you are coming to realize this all now, too, and willing to journey with me in your own revision of thought, I welcome you as my partner. If you haven’t yet realized what I’m going to attempt to sort out in my mind and think, “Wow, this lady is crazy, that’s not how I see the world at all,” I’ll be here when you figure it out in your own time. I welcome you as my partner then.

I believe in transparency, so I’m going to name a few things up front:

I am an extrovert and like to crack a joke or two, and sometimes folks even laugh.

I am nearly 40 (so youngish I’d assert), with a few gray hairs and steadfastly deepening wrinkles.

I live in a coastal city, in a coastal state.

I speak the dominate language of the country within which I’ve lived my entire life.

I have full ability, both physically and cognitively.

I am college-educated.

Both my parents, still married to one another after nearly 50 years, are both college-educated.

My grandparents were college-educated, too.

I am a biological mother to two healthy children.

I am an educator.

I am middle class.

I am cisgender.

I am heterosexual.

I have blue eyes.

I am white.

I have privilege; therefore, in our society, I have power.

This privilege was given to me by right of birth into a systemically patriarchal, sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic society that privileges anything closest to whiteness. Privilege has been defined, by a group of wise fifth graders and their teacher that I have the pleasure of learning alongside, as the advantages, opportunities, chances, and benefits afforded to people or groups of people. I agree with their definition and is one I’ll use to frame this reflection and my reflection on life.

On May 8, 2002, I wrote this as the opening words of my Master’s thesis: “I am a product of opportunities denied to others. Based on who I was, society gave me a chance to succeed.” Sitting here tonight, processing what my words really mean to me at nearly the age 40, I question whether I’ve even fully ever understood what this statement means, especially when I wrote it at the young age of 24.

On May 8, 2016, my family came out to the world: my elementary-aged child emerged visibly into the world as a transgender boy.

It’s been a year of visibility, in a myriad tangible and metaphorical ways, for him, for me, for us all.

So, with all of this named, and again, my need to preface this writing with this verboseness to build a context for you, it does not nearly encapsulate the feelings I have about the inexcusability of my unknowing over my nearly four-decades-long lifetime. Or, plainly, my lived experience of relative ignorance and the lack of knowledge of how to actively work against an oppressive system for too many years of my life.  The one thing I do have to say, if you’re still reading this alongside me and have a bit of faith that I’ll reach a coherent thought in all of this, is this fact: I have begun to see the world for what it is. Harper Lee described Scout’s evolution of self, in her first novel Go Set a Watchman, as “coming into this world” to know the truth she’s been unable to see her entire life: that of the reality of the way within which the world works. It’s a bit of the way I’ve been feeling this past year. And believe me, I know that’s not enough, not nearly enough to have gotten to this age in my life and to only have arrived here with what little knowledge I have, ever expanding as it is, but it’s my truth. I have decades of work to do to peel away decades worth of unknowing. That’s the process of life, though, right? A wise woman expressed to me recently, “I live my life in revision.” That’s me right now, and truthfully, me over this past year.

I fully expect that this reflection, if that’s even what I should call this stream-of-consciousness writing, is likely to make absolutely no sense to anyone, much less to me yet, I write it anyway because of the power in the idea of yet. Yep, yet. Again, living life in revision, right? I acknowledge this truth and I need to sit with this and be okay with this. And I am, for now. Life is a process of making sense of the world around you, and much of it does not make sense, until it does. So in essence, that’s what this is about tonight, for me: trying to make sense of the specific experiences I’ve had in the last twelve days and bouncing them against the evolving knowledge I’ve gained over the last seventeen years, so my realizations can begin to take shape and become a bit more clarified in my mind. And, so most importantly, action can be taken or continue to take place, by me. So I can catch up to all of you who’ve worked your entire lives towards tangible change.

This is a huge ask of me to you, my reader, but I’ll still ask (and I acknowledge this ask is a reflection of my privilege, as I have the socialized expectation if I walk into most rooms, I’ll be listened to, honored with respectful responses back, and maybe folks might even take my charge and go forth. I come to this realization with conflicted feelings, but as it’s important to my heart that you hear what I have to say, I’ll continue with my ask of you): join this journey of thought with me, then reflect, and then go. And continue to do or make your first steps toward doing in new ways. Make space in your mind and heart to reflect upon what I’ve attempted to say in this reflection and space in your life to continue to take action upon what your heart guides you to do.

A bit of concreteness now: I’ve some research and educator stuff to convey to you, but I promise this: it is part of the foundation for linking back to my discussion on privilege, power, and oppression. Please stick with me.

As an educator by trade and an anthropologist by training, I’ve had the honor of studying with and learning from some of the fiercest teachers practicing their brilliance in the classroom today, some of the most incredible educator leaders studying with educators across the country around school reform, some of the most thoughtful educational researchers working tirelessly to combat inequities in the schooling system, and connect with some of the most magnificent authors of trans-themed texts available to date. I am indebted to each and every one of these dynamic individuals. Tonight, I am also greatly indebted to a dear friend, colleague, and amazing human being, who I’ll call Ms. J in this reflection, for opening her classroom, her mind, and her heart to me and enabling my research to soar to new humbling heights. The next descriptions of ideas are from experiences that happened to me over the span of the last twelve days and are really part of an ongoing research study spanning ten months, two coasts, multiple states, and countless hours of reflective thought and tangible action.

In a recent research trip to New York City, I had the opportunity to meet an incredibly soulful author and advocate, Alex Gino, who wrote the groundbreaking middle grade book George. This book is so much more, but in one sentence, it chronicles the coming out story of a young transgender girl. I will write more about Alex, their book, and my experience in New York in other reflections. So, for now, one fifth grader’s question and one poignant reflection Alex made based on his question, guided what Ms. J and I attempted to try out in her fifth grade classroom these past two days, really, what Ms. J artfully facilitated to my ever-increasing awestruck state. The fifth grader in New York asked Alex this question: “Why did you decide to make Melissa [the main character of their book George] transgender instead of genderqueer?” In Alex’s response, they said something that I sat with for nine days. One of Alex’s responses was, “There is a ladder of privilege. Trans boys go up the ladder of privilege, while trans girls go down the ladder of privilege.”

As a mother of a young visible transgender boy, I was taken back listening to Alex make this statement, my child even heard this, as I took him with me during this research trip to experience the world in a big way. My child, as a transgender boy, by realization of self, has entered into an identity that holds less privilege, and therefore less power, in our societal structure. This I hold as truth. However, when thinking about the trans community as a whole, Alex’s assertion that a male trans identity holds more power and is therefore going up a metaphorical ladder of privilege while the opposite is true for female trans identities, viscerally hit me. It quickly led me to reflect on the notions of systemic patriarchy and sexism pervasive in our society. This consequently led me to a place of deep reflection, processing, and realization. Poignant for me here, too, was the imagery of a ladder of privilege, of unspoken rules of positionality among one another that we are socialized in myriad ways to internalize through our mere participation as a member of our organized society.

Analytically-minded, for better or for worse, I sat with these notions for days, allowing them to roll around in my mind and in my heart.

So now, recently back in my own large, urban town and studying with Ms. J these past few days, she continued her study of tackling notions of identity with her class, comprised entirely of thirty-four ten, eleven, and twelve-year-old children of color. I’m naming this, again, to give context for you. She continued this study by focusing on an interactive read aloud of Alex’s book George. By chapter one’s end, her wise fifth graders, full of empathy in their hearts, were both verbalizing and writing comments, of which I’ll explore in other future reflections in time.

Poignant, though, was one line of thought we heard multiple times that struck us both and we realized needed to be unpacked in a deeper way: “Why doesn’t Melissa just tell people around her that she’s a transgender girl?” Ms. J’s fifth grader’s questions and thoughts to tackle this notion centered around two lines of thought: either Melissa should tell those around her and live her truth or Melissa was scared of others’ potential reactions and possibly would experience negative effects as a result. Here are a few student’s responses to give you context for why we chose to shift in the direction we did next with this study. All student responses appear in original form to honor the agency of these student’s writing and voice:

Live her truth lines of thought:

Student [S]: “I’m trying to figure out that why would she be hidding who she is because every body should understand that who she is and that she is over exazorating.”

S: “What I am trying to figure out is why Malisa is hiding from her parents.”

S: “What i’m trying to figure out is, how come she can’t tell her family that she’s a girl.”

S: “Why is George trying to hide her real self that is inside her? If she tells her family that he [she] is a girl then she could be named as Melissa.”

S: “I agree with you b/c she is a girl inside her but outside she is a boy.”

S: “I agree because if she does tell her family, then she won’t have to suffer hiding her self.”

S: “I agree b/c the same thing. Is she going to come at [out].”

S: “I am wondering the same thing. Is she going to come out and tell her family or stay inside her shell?”

S: “I agree because you should tell your family it is that your family can’t go share with their freinds or you can get embarased.”

S: “I agree with you because instead of telling her parent shes hideing secrets and if she tell them they’ll understand and they’ll practice until the make her comfertable.”

S: “Maybe there going to let her have some time and respect her who she is and not try to make her uncomferble because then her insides are going to make her sad.”

Melissa is scared of others’ reactions lines of thought:

S: “I think she is hiding from her parents because maybe she’s not ready to tell her parents. Probaly she’s scared what there going to know about her. and worried if there going to accept her as a girl or not.”

S: “I think she will tell when she is ready. She’s not ready new [now] because she does not know how others are going to react.”
S: “Because she doesn’t wan’t people to jugde her thats why she’s afraid.”

S: “I aggree because george might get misjudged by the way he [she] looks on the outside but it dosn’t match the inside of george.”

S: “She’s not telling know one because she is not ready to face thing like your wired or other stuff like that.”

S: “Melissa doesn’t tell her family who she is because they might not understand or make fun of her.”

S: “Honestly, if she tells her family, Scott [Melissa’s older brother] will play telephone with the message and chaos will spawn and affect her life and probably commit suicide.”

Ms. J and I reflected, for a long time that afternoon, how to tackle these questions coming up for her students. Two things struck us. First, the beautiful empathy we saw expressed by children: they wanted this character to be able to be visibly who she was with those around her. Second, though, they recognized something about the positionality of the trans identity within a larger societal framework of oppression. Although not exactly articulated in these words, the sentiment was expressed. That’s when the idea of the ladder of privilege Alex Gino had mentioned that I’d been rolling around in my head and heart for the past days surfaced and guided what happened next. And what happened over the next two days is unequivocally the most poignant work I’ve ever witnessed in my days supporting and studying alongside dope educators in schools. You’ll see why as you read further. I hope.

Ms. J decided to tackle the idea of the ladder of privilege with an activity first to demonstrate the idea around privilege. Then, facilitate a conversation around identities we hold in life, how they position themselves against one another at a societal level, how these identities influence our position of privilege and power in society, and finally, the notion that something must be done to disrupt this reality. Phew, just tackle all that, in two days, with fifth graders. Right? Yep, and that’s what happened. That’s what Ms. J did, with a bit of facilitating and bouncing ideas off me, while I tried not to cry tears of profound awe as I experienced what unfolded from the mouths and hearts of children.

What follows is my attempt to capture a description of this three-part lesson study over two days and to process it within the context of my original conversation around privilege, power, and oppression. And then, to urge you to reflect, consider your next moves, and go forth to continue to do your tireless work, or join us in action.

Part 1: Privilege Shared Experience

Ms. J had her students line up in two ways: by gender and height, to their chagrin that they were in a “boys and girls line.” Good push back, kiddos! (Sorry, I had to name that…). Then she chose the three tallest boys to sit in the front row of blue chairs: tallest chairs closest to a trashcan. She gave them a large piece of paper crumbled. The next row back also had large chairs and larger pieces of paper crumbled up, but was comprised of the three tallest girls. The third row was comprised of the shortest boys, with the shortest chairs, who were given the smallest pieces of paper crumbled. Finally, the last row was comprised of the shortest girls, sitting on milk crates closest to the floor and given one small unfolded stickie note each.

The front row, comprised of the tallest boys, was instructed by Ms. J to try to throw their crumbled paper into the trashcan. One made it right away. The other two didn’t. They were told to try again. One made it. The last boy in the front row was given a third chance, told he could even walk up a bit to try to make his paper into the trashcan. All three made it into the trashcan in the end.

The next row, that comprised of the three tallest girls in class, were instructed to try to throw their large crumbled papers into the trashcan. One girl made it in on the first attempt, the other two didn’t. They were told they couldn’t try again.

The third row, comprised of the three shortest boys in the three shortest chairs with the smallest crumbled paper followed suit. None made it into the trashcan. They were told by Ms. J they couldn’t stand up, scoot forward, or have another attempt.

Finally, the three shortest girls, in the last row, with the shortest milk crate seats and the unfolded stickie notes, attempted to throw their papers into the trashcan all the way in the front of the rows. You can guess what happened, right? Nothing. The papers floated to the ground.

The looks of distress and discomfort on the twelve students that actively participated in the activity and the rest of the class who intently observed was palpable.

Part 2: Unpacking Societal Privilege: A Conversation

Ms. J then brought her students to the meeting area to facilitate a conversation around unpacking societal privilege, based on their visceral reactions to the shared experience. She named a few concepts to facilitate the conversation: she named privilege as “an advantage or opportunity given to a person or group of people.” She then asked if one group had privilege over another, what would that be called and how would that make you feel? She urged students to reflect upon the activity with the trashcan as well as push into reflections upon the larger world around them.

The following are student responses, both centering on feelings about the activity on privilege as well as their synthesis of what privilege meant to them.

Student feelings are as follows: privilege is “unfair and not even.” Privilege makes me feel “mad”, “worried”, “enraged”, and “annoyed because I didn’t get another chance.” One young gentleman spoke to the idea of “superior and inferior.” Here is his thinking: “superior is when you get other stuff and more chances. Inferior is when you have less or none/no opportunities.” Ms. J clarified this idea further: “superior means one group of people have more power or are better than others, while inferior is when people don’t have many rights or opportunities to do what they want.” One young lady expressed an example to this concept of inferiority, “Like in the old days, women had to stay home and couldn’t do what they wanted.” [See chart below]

Ms. J then facilitated a conversation to explore the societal groups that we all belong to or we know exist in the world. Students shared ideas of societal groups they belong to or see exist in the world. [See charts below]

Part 3: Ladder of Privilege

This is where the final piece of the lesson study happened around unpacking the idea of societal privilege. Ms. J asked her students if they knew what a society was. Below are a few student responses:

Ms. J then stated this truth in her class: “In this class, we are broadminded. We’re trying to understand as big as we can for our age and as you grow, you’ll understand more. My job is to open your minds to big conversations.” This led into her asking this question to begin the conversation around the concept of the ladder of privilege, “What do you know of a ladder?” Her students had concepts around a ladder and its use, many of which metaphorically were very poignant. [See chart below]:

S: “It leads you up.”

S: “It can take you down.”

S: “A ladder is like life: going up, you’re learning. That’s success. Going down, you’re not reaching success. That’s failure. In the middle, you can get stuck.”

S: “You can go higher than before.”

S: “You can fall from a ladder; it’s a bit dangerous and scary.”

S: “Opportunity or a chance.”

S: “Ladders can help you.”

Once students had a solid understanding of ladders, Ms. J moved into the big work of the ladder of privilege analysis. She named this for her students: “We’re going to step outside of ourselves, we’re going to go broad. How does our society see these groups of people we named on a ladder? What is the message our society says about different groups of people, from ads on T.V., YouTube, social media ads, the news you read or hear a lot? Where would society place a group on this ladder?”

I’ll tell you two truths I observed. First, it was hard for her students to step outside their personal opinions and state what they saw society telling them. They didn’t want to personally place some of these identities in this way, but once they realized it was what society privileged or gave power to, they seemed to have greater ease in naming where they thought these identities should be placed on the ladder of privilege and this frame helped them, too: “In my opinion ____, but what society would say is _____ because _____.” Second, they were very hesitant to place anything on the ‘5’ or the ‘1’ on the ladder and were much more comfortable placing identities at a ‘4’ or the commonly expressed ‘2/3.’ I think this is about her students wanting to show the distinction of difference between pairs of identities (e.g. male-female, rich-poor, dull-funny) but not such a stark difference to suggest majorly large divides between identities (e.g. students had a tougher time placing an identity pair oppositely at a ‘1’ and ‘5’; ‘2/3’ and ‘4’ seemed to be more comfortable for them to place identities upon). I hope this small bit of analysis makes sense.

The chart below is where the class conversation ended up with the ten identities Ms. J asked them to consider (further reflection, we’re going to add the identity of language, the identity around ability, and education status as questions to consider next week). I’m going to urge you to sit with this image for a bit. Please, take a few minutes to study it and then reflect upon it.

Are you ready to continue reading? I hope so. I know you will have your own reflections upon the results of what these thirty-four fifth graders thought about where society would place these identities on a ladder of privilege based on your own concepts of the world around you. For Ms. J and I, we sat with this chart for a long while. For me, I cried. Yep, teared up in the classroom (I tried to compose myself a bit as I was a guest in her class) and then had an ugly cry in the car in the school parking lot after I left. Why? Just look at what children saw upon reflecting on information they’ve implicitly received from the society within which they live. From adults around them, peers around them. From ads, from the news, from the internet, from social media. And I see it, too. But CHILDREN see ALL, too. We know this, right, that kids probably see this, too? But to watch them reason through this as a class, have conversations about these identities, and to see the end results of this conversation imprinted on this chart? Damn. That’s their undeniable truth, staring out at you. How does that make you feel?

Just look at the identities (of which there where ten pairs asked about for them to consider, and again, we’d add language, ability, and educational status, too) they agreed were definitely placed at ‘5’ on the ladder of privilege, or closely followed by a designation of a ‘4.’ Those identities that they see have power and privilege, advantages and lead to success in our society:

  • rich
  • white
  • blue eyes
  • attractive, funny, young, skinny
  • male
  • cisgender
  • heterosexual/straight

And, now look at the identities they thought society privileged the least, afforded the least opportunities to, and in essence, had the least power, that students placed at the bottom of the ladder of privilege:

  • poor
  • unattractive, dull, old, fat
  • female
  • brown eyes
  • people of color
  • homosexual
  • transgender

I feel the need to share with you some of the reasons Ms. J’s students gave, in their whole class conversation, for placing some of these identities where they did on the ladder, because herein lies the essence of privilege, power, and oppression in our societal structure:

Female-Male: “In ads women make less money in pay than men.” This guided students to place the identity of female at ‘2/3’ and male at ‘4.’

People of Color/ People who are white or appear white: “White people have more opportunities” was a common theme among their verbal responses and consciously lead them to place white at ‘5’ and People of Color at ‘2.’

Heterosexual/Homosexual: “Society thinks an identity of homosexuality would be at a ‘2’ because society is not as accepting and they think they have less advantages.” Heterosexuality was placed at a ‘4.’

Cisgender/Transgender: Even though Ms. J’s class had been talking about the idea around the trans identity for a few days, Ms. J needed to redefine the difference between cisgender and transgender for clarity again here, as the concept was newer for many students still. (For your clarity, if needed, too, here is an accepted definition of each. Cisgender: describes someone who feels comfortable with the gender identity and gender expression expectations assigned to them a birth. Transgender: a term for people whose gender identity, expression, or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth. Transgender is a broad term and “trans” is shorthand for transgender. Transgender should be used as an adjective, not a noun, thus, “transgender people” is appropriate.) Ms. J also make the distinction about visibility here: what would society think about a visible transgender identity (verses a person who is stealth and is not visible to those around them).

Students had the following reasoning: “Cisgender is a 3 or 4 because society thinks they are supposed to be who you are at birth.” “Because cisgender people don’t have to go through trouble to change their name, spend money on that instead of other things, or have concerns.” Students placed the identity of transgender at a ‘1/2’ because “there is the trouble you go through to change your name” and society might “think it’s nasty because they identify themselves as a different gender than they were born” and because “people might tease them.”

After Ms. J and I reflected upon what we had just witnessed, we decided it better to tackle the placement of the identity of transgender boys vs. transgender girls later on, as students had more time with the concept from reading more of the book George. We decided to end the lesson for that moment, reading a few more pages of the chapter in George and then having a wrap up conversation about what students had just worked through in the ladder of privilege analysis. We hoped to leave them with the idea around taking action, as well. Here’s what Ms. J insightfully conveyed to her fifth graders in her wrap up of the lesson: “You are young and wise. It’s hard to step outside of yourselves and your own opinion, which is valued. Now, what are you going to do with this knowledge? It’s not enough to understand this, now you have to do something about it. Ask yourself: now that you know this, what are you going to do to make a difference for your place in this, others’ place, and speak out when things are unfair? We can all do things in our own way, sitting in the knowledge isn’t enough. You are the future and you are powerful. This is life here—you want walk around with the knowledge, you’ve got to use it somehow.”

Wow. I’m taking a breath here. Please pause to do so if you need to as well.

So, let’s link this back to the context of my original thinking around privilege, power, and oppression, my hope that you’ve witnessed through my writing the essence of these moments in my last twelve days, consider your next moves, and go forth to continue to do your tireless work, or join Ms. J and I in action.

I steadfastly believe school is a rehearsal for life. What we value in life, we need to reflect in the classroom. If we value the status quo in life, then we perpetuate this in the classrooms across our country. If, however, we disagree with the status quo that our society seeks to perpetuate through its socialization practices, we must actively disrupt these in our classrooms and re-imagine classrooms to reflect what we value in society. This work starts here for me and for many educators I work alongside. I promised but an attempt to reflection upon on my revised notion of self, my understanding of the world around me, and my painfully raw process of shedding skin, outgrowing what I knew to be true in the world, and pushing forth with vision, hard work, and passion to see things change in big ways for children. For our future. This can happen, is happening in classrooms across our country this very moment and has been happening by incredible educators for decades. This is just a teeny tiny window into some fierce work I’ve had the honor of being a part of lately.

Perhaps my next statements will be a result of my nativity in realizing the ramifications of my privileged perspective and do give me pause in expressing them to you now, but I’m going to name my truth anyway. (I apologize ahead of time, though, I’m trying). This is my revised thinking now: You’re either a part of change, or you aren’t. I wasn’t actively part of real tangible, systemically targeted change, for far too long. Yes, I’ve always been a caring, kind, hardworking, empowering, steadfast educator for children. But, not like I now know I needed to be, could have been, and am working damn hard to become. If you were ahead of me in this work, you humble me. If you’re with me now, let’s move forward together. If you aren’t there yet, when you’re ready, reach out. We’re here to walk alongside you. Please let that be sooner than later, though, because children are counting on you. My child is counting on you, your visions for change, and your actions to make that a reality.

I will take Ms. J’s charge to her student to be our charge for ourselves as adults, as educators, as guardians or parents of children, of community members and allies, as human beings. Now that you have the knowledge, regardless of when you came to those realizations of life, what are you going to do with that knowledge to make a difference for others? What are you already doing that you can share with others and guide them along? What are you willing to try, even if it means stepping out of your comfort zone and experiencing a bit of what a mentor of mine calls ‘aspirational discomfort’? What resources do you need, support do you seek, people do you need to surround yourself with to hold you to your word that you want these systemic oppressions to shift in tangible ways for kids, for us all? I am reminded of this quote by a mentor of mine, “To be neutral in a moving stream means you’re still going with the current. You need to swim against the current. You must be actively working against a thing. Systems change because we disrupt them.” Ask yourself, what are you willing to take an active stance on, to disrupt in ways that make your beliefs actionable, make your classrooms reflect the world you wish we lived in, and your homes and communities reflect the image of society you wish was a reality? If you are already doing this deep work and have been for decades, I am humbled by you. If you are emerging like me, hi friends. If you’re not there yet, join us. Please.

I will end with a circle back to transparency, such as I began. I am in my infancy in this work. There are myriad people who have been immersed tirelessly in this work for decades. I am indebted to them, their pioneering work, and their spirit that pervades the work today. I am a small stone. I drop into the pond. I make ripples that increase in size. I hope my ripples meet others and we create waves together. It may be naïve to think that I’ve any voice in this work, but again, it’s my assertion that we can all find a place in this. It takes us all, so I am humbled to be welcomed into the work by mentors and scholars, activists and artists, leagues ahead of me in every way. One thing I do know, however, is this simple truth: my kid’s life depends on your shifts, in big ways. I invite you along my journey and I’m humbled to join you alongside yours.

__

Published with permission from an educator ally, who is also a mother of a young trans child in our advocacy network. -C
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Kid Authors parent trans child

An Open Letter to Adults from a Transgender Child

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The past 48 hours have been devastatingly painful for our family and other families supporting gender variant or transgender children.  As we heard that the new administration would rescind the thoughtful guidelines the Obama administration put into effect last May to protect trans children’s rights at school, found here, we called and sent messages to our local and national politicians. Wednesday we awoke to find that indeed, the guidelines had been formally rescinded by the new administration. As the parent of a nine year old visible transgender son, I’ve spent the past 48 hours reading every single article I could get my hands on to educate myself about the ramifications of this newest assault on our community and to also prepare myself to talk to my son. He and I have a very beautiful relationship and speak openly about most every topic, so my son is very well informed about the reality of the world we live in. My hesitation to wait 48 hours to speak to him was more about me gathering my thoughts and gaining strength to take on his worry when I approached this conversation with him.

In my research and reading, an alarming fact began to emerge: the glaringly absent voice of the child in this narrative. As a parent who also happens to be an educator, I believe steadfastly that uplifting a child’s voice is essential in building their agency as a human being and empowering their role as a citizen in our democratic system. It is with that intent in mind, that my son gave me gracious permission to share his thoughts with the world. He wants this narrative to shift as well: he wants children’s voices to be heard, his own voice honored. He wants adults to know what he thinks. So, here it is adults:

An Open Letter to Adults from a Transgender Child

Why do people go to adults, not kids? This is about kids, not that much about adults. Adults don’t go to school. Also, adults shouldn’t tell kids what to do. It’s not fair what bullies say. It feels mean that adults are making decisions for kids. Kids have a life, too. Kids should do whatever they want to be themselves. When the adults are mean, they teach the kids to be mean, too. It’s kind of creepy these people are making decisions for you and they’re not even transgender or kids. It’s mean. Why can’t kids do what makes them safe and why should adults get to tell kids who they are and kids know the best about them because they are themselves.

Kids in other states will be crying every single night and want to be someone else. They’d want to be someone else with the problems they have now. If I travel to another state, now I need to bring around a card [gender affirmed birth certificate] in other states that don’t allow transgender people to go into the bathroom they want? Now I have to prove it? Why did they do this – why don’t some states like children to be themselves?  Maybe all the transgender people can live together where people support them – but it’s not fair. They should live where they want to. I feel sad because I have to carry a card now and this wouldn’t happen if Hillary Clinton were president. Why would he even be president? We need to change the law of how to have a president.

I feel really sad right now. Kids should tell their parents what’s right for them. People think that kids are just people who have fun, people with no problems, and have no voice in the world but they are wrong. After you read this, go up to your kid and ask them what’s right for the world. Adults need to listen to children because children have ideas, too. Children are scared to tell about who they are to adults because they don’t want adults to not let them be their true selves.

I’d say to other transgender children: it’s okay, every transgender kid is cheering you on. Even though you’re going through all this peril, you have transgender kids on your side. Even though it looks like there aren’t any transgender kids at your school, there just might be one who doesn’t want to have anybody know. Now kids are going to want to keep their true selves inside and not tell anyone. It’s bad.

Transgender kids and bully kids get out of bed the same, they eat breakfast the same, they go to school the same, they sleep, eat, play, have lunch, dinner, and bedtime the same. But when they get to school, everything is different because bully kids think their moms and dads aren’t there so they can bully people.

What about teachers? They sometimes have boy lines and girl lines and you have to go in either one. What if you’re a kid and you’re both? Where do you go? This also goes to bathrooms – if you’re in the middle, which bathroom do you go in? What if some teachers support their transgender students but principals don’t support kids, will the teachers get fired? They shouldn’t be principals if they don’t care about all children.

This is going not to just people who are transgender but to everybody. This could also happen to people because of their skin color. Maybe they might get suspended for their skin color. It doesn’t matter what their skin color is, it’s who you are. It’s not like transgender kids chose this, it’s just who they are. What happens if in the future that there’s no states that support transgender and people of color anymore? They might get murdered. That would be so bad. That’s like murdering yourself. That actually might happen because some people are really mean.

In our brain, we have two sides: one side is love and one side is hate. Like my mom has a big love and a little hate. I have big love and a little hate. My brother has big love and a little hate. But the president has almost all the way hate and almost all love is going to go away from him. What if the president was a kid? How would he feel? What if he was a transgender child? We have to change their minds. We need someone very powerful to do that – to change their minds – and the very powerful one is children.

Adults think they are so powerful because they can control the kids, they made the kids so kids are like slaves – but they are not. They are like adults, like people. Actually, maybe in the future there’s not adults and kids, it’s everyone equal with each other.  So when people bully children because they are different they are just bullying themselves because they are different, too. We’re all different in different ways. Nobody can match up someone: our brains are different, our bodies are different, our hands, feet, and faces are different.

If you are reading this, I want you to know: cherish this letter because this is what children say but they’re too scared to tell you adults because you’re the ruler of them and they think they’ll get in trouble.

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Published with permission from a young transgender child in our advocacy network, with all content from the child represented in original unedited form to honor his voice and agency. -C
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parent trans child

Terror, Truth & Small Triumphs

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Will he find me, mama? Will he try to kill me?

These were the chilling words spoken to me by my young transgender child November 9, 2016. Perhaps you are wondering who the he is that my child was referring to? Devastatingly, the newly-elected person who would hold the highest office of our country, that of the President of the United States.  It was incomprehensible for me to conceive of my child being afraid that someone would try to find him and try to kill him because he identifies as a transgender person. It was terrifying, actually.

To think the person my child was referring to so frighteningly was that of a person who was just elected to hold the office of the president was unfathomable to me. What did that really mean? Did my child really think this person would storm into our home and try to actually take his life? To my young child, hearing about the hatred coming from this person’s mouth for months wove its way deeply into his vulnerable soul. I immediately mourned his innocence and my culpability for not being able to shield him from the unkindness of the world. I questioned if I had actually made the right choice in being transparent with my adverse feelings for this candidate with my child. No way I had ever thought this person would actually win the election. My deep regret was not the fact I had chosen to be honest with my child and call out the hateful comments when they were made, on a regularly on-going basis. My deep regret was that now my child would live within an America filled with emboldened citizens who felt justified with their hateful comments, using their newly elected president as their role model and excuse. I was sickened to my core.

What was I to do? Crumble, cry, fall apart, hid, try to escape? As a person, a bit of all these options sucked me in. As a parent, none of these options would do. I had the responsibility to my child to get up each day, stand tall, and model love and compassion daily. So, that’s just what I did.

Truth? It is a choice each day to get up, choose love, make my values actionable, and fight like hell for my beliefs. It’s a scary feeling that my life has turned into a series of fight or flight situations, where I’m on guard with every person I know, waiting for the other shoe to drop and wondering who in my core friend group is about to abandon me because it’s just gotten too hard. Loosing friendships of over 15 years and loosing family members I’ve counted on my whole life because it’s just gotten too hard. Loosing the ability to navigate life with a sense of hope for the future and stability for the present is just plain awful.

Enter: Small triumphs. My life has begun to center on focusing on a series of small triumphs that make each day slightly better than the last. A smile on my child’s face because no one at school misgendered him today. A small win. The look on his face when a waiter says, “What does the little guy want for dinner?” Priceless glow on his face. When his best friend stands up for him and tells another child that his name is now his new name and to call him that. My heart fills with gratitude.

So, when a rather big triumph recently came our family’s way, I wasn’t prepared for it. Our child was successfully granted a legal name and gender change. A long term process that came to fruition moments before the impending new administration switch. Relief hardly captures the feeling that swept across my heart when the judge, one of the most compassionate strangers I’ve ever had the privilege of being graced by in my life, said to my child, “Let me be the first to congratulate you and call you by your new legal name.” The ear to ear smile on my child’s face said what no words would come close to saying.

Terror had turned into a small triumph on his face. A small triumph in my heart, too.

__

Published with permission from a parent of a trans child in our advocacy network. -C
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