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Thursday, March 10, 2016

We Begin to Know Each Other

While navigating around the Rethinking Schools website, which has an overwhelming amount of exceptional information, resources, and articles, I found one article that I was more intrigued to read than others.  The summary of We Begin to Know Each Other by Maiya Jackson caught my eye and left me wanting to hear the rest of it.
The article is primarily about an 8th grade girl named Laura, who was born a boy.  Laura applied for Manhattan Country School (where Maiya Jackson is director) upon entering the 8th grade because she was being pressured to leave her current school after making the decision to become a girl.  Not ready to deal with the questions that would arise from the community, Laura's current school asked her to leave when she made this decision.
This was the baseline that was explained in the brief summary prior to reading the full article.  While I can imagine that the topic of transgender can be quite a complex one for staff and families of such a young age group,  I could not believe that a school took the initiative to ask this child to leave.  This child had undoubtedly struggled with her identity for all of her life thus far, and had made a bolder and braver decision than many adults have in their own lives to change that.  This is so impressing to me that a child this young can be sure enough to make such an aggressive, and assuringly scary, choice on their own.
Manhattan Country School (MCS), the school Laura would be transferring in, "is a pre-K to 8th grade progressive school in New York City with a social justice mission.  Our student body has no racial majority, and we have a sliding-scale tuition system that supports socio-economic diversity".  The admissions team wanted to trust that the school would be safe and welcoming place for Laura, but was unsure how the wider school community would be in regards to talking openly about transgender identity.  While reading how the community and school felt, I found myself relating it back to the students transferring into Frances Howell in This American Life.  While very different identities, it is seemingly the same situation of bringing students in to a school that may make current students and families feel uncomfortable, but also wanting to make the new students feel safe and welcome.
The mission of MCS is proven throughout the article many times, but mainly because of the way Laura found MCS.  She had found it by attending Cometfire, a citywide group for LGBTQ middle school students and their allies (love that this is a thing there).  There, Laura became friendly with an 8th grader, Sophia, that had been out as a lesbian since the 5th grade.  Again, as a side note, I was very impressed that a child had come out by that age.  I feel that goes to show how serious gender identity can be, and that these children so obviously know this all of their lives (see related video link at end of blog).
After the admissions team met with the school psychologist to talk about Laura's adjustment and how to support her, she entered the 8th grade class that already had three gay families; "Sophia had already blazed a path to talk about gender and sexuality.  The class's 6th grade activism project had been lobbying for marriage equality at a state senator's office; their 7th grade project was leading a campaign to stop bullying of LGBTQ students".  These points that show how unbiased and welcoming this school is is absolutely amazing to me.  This is exactly how schools today need to be, and I wonder how Delpit and the other authors of the readings we have previously done would react to such an outstanding body of students and staff.
As the school prepared for Laura's welcoming and the new school year, Sophia's mother wrote an e-mail in regards to Sophia's gender as well.  She had attended a gender nonconforming camp for kids that summer, and made a transition to being called 'SJ' and living in a masculine spectrum.  It was very meaningful to her, and SJ wanted to continue his transition identity that year school.  Another thought provoking situation for me, because I could not help but respect that this parent was so supportive and open to their child's identity transition, especially at an age where many children do not still know themselves, and go through many phases.
Upon these situations, the school found themselves wondering how to deal with certain situations, such as gender bathrooms.  They opted for hanging signs on the door that said "occupied" when students were using them, rather than having a girls room and a boys room.  They did not want to have only locked unisex bathrooms, because of the potential safety hazard of students locking themselves in bathrooms.
The staff spent much time discussing this with each other and their students, and even did staff development sessions on gender identity and writing exercises of the first time when they were aware of their gender (I found myself briefly thinking of this as well, and finding it rather hard!).  The staff would tell their students on the first day of school while making opening remarks for the school year. They talked about the importance of community, and introduced SJ, who all the students were already familiar with as Sophia.  At first, Maiya reported that the students were rather open and accepting of Laura and SJ.  However, as the school year went on, there were minor issues and confusion for the students attending school with Laura and SJ.  Students brought up issues such as sports, and how they felt Laura playing on a girls team was an unfair advantage having been born a boy.  Some brought up overnight field trips, and how it was going to work gender wise.  The 8th grade girls apparently kept asking a 7th grade girl why she was interested in dating SJ, because he was a "boy" and had a crush on her, implying that she was a bad friend for not choosing to go out with him.  All of these confusing issues with staff and students brought me back to when Allan Johnson said that "people fear the unfamiliar".  At the beginning, everyone seemed fine with it.  As time went on, and questions arose, and the students and staff could not justify their questions with answers for themselves because they were unfamiliar with the situation, they seemed to start that fear he speaks of.  The staff held several meetings throughout the year, and had started with written questions from the students. It seemed the sessions were helpful, however, while reading the end of the article, I believe the most effective strategy for the students dealing with these confusing issues was to hear from Laura herself.  Laura gave a talk to the 7th and 8th grade students at the end of the year, and I felt it even put things in perspective for me.  She explains that she has always been a girl, stuck in a boy's body.  "I want all of you to close your eyes and imagine seeing yourself in the mirror, but instead of seeing yourself as your biological sex, imagine you are the opposite open your eyes. Some may have liked the image they saw and some may have not.  If you did not like the image you saw, imagine what it would be like to live 11 years of your life as that image".  This quote is extremely powerful and I would love to refer back to it for anyone that may be confused or biased against transgenders.
I wanted to include this brief video on Jacob, a 5-year-old child that was born a girl and has already chosen to live as a boy.  I think it is very interesting to see a child at this age be so sure of his identity change, and it proves that children know this far before they even know what gender really is.


  1. Wow, what a touching article and video. These stories really strike me, as I have a student who is currently transitioning. Gender identity is such a complicated topic and I feel like schools often make a child's transition infinitely more challenging because administration, teachers, and other students do not have the vocabulary to discuss gender identity and transgender issues. The struggles that MCS encountered (things like gendered bathrooms and sports) are very real, but clearly not hurdles that are insurmountable. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Amanda! Love this blog and the article you chose. Also, my bad for choosing such a similar article, I didn’t see your blog until now. The 8th grade girls apparently kept asking a 7th grade girl why she was interested in dating SJ, because he was a "boy" and had a crush on her, implying that she was a bad friend for not choosing to go out with him. All of these confusing issues with staff and students brought me back to when Allan Johnson said that "people fear the unfamiliar". YES!!! It’s so true that people fear the unfamiliar, that’s why it is so important to open up the dialogue to students, let them feel comfortable enough to ask questions and give them the information they need to make the unfamiliar a familiar thing. It’s AMAZING that Laura was able to speak on behalf of herself and her community, but not all children in her situation would be. I think it’s important that schools have teachers that are willing to talk with their students about the LGBT community.