“I can’t tell,” she said to her friend, eyeing another one of my students sitting on the couch. “I can’t tell if that’s a boy or a girl.”
It was the first week of school, and my students were still getting to know each other. I couldn’t help but overhear this piece of the conversation, cringing slightly and sitting at a nearby table while my students were eating snack. They were organically forming small groupings, as children tend to do. It’s funny how they go about doing this, generally based on similar interests, gender identity, or even appearance. In fact, they seem to be attracted to friends in whom they can see themselves. That’s probably why cliques form, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s where stereotypes came from.
And so it came as no surprise that I found the student about whom the two girls were talking, sitting on the couch, in the middle of a bunch of boys, quietly reading a book. It had become clear since the first day of school that this student identified as male. He wore what my students assumed to be traditionally boys’ clothes, had his hair cut somewhat androgynously, and spoke in a kind, but husky voice. In fact, he had gone so far as to call himself “he,” even though others in his life, including his parents, did not.
I noticed this one day–that some were calling him “he” while others were calling him “she”–and having never confronted this type of situation before, I was unsure what to do. After all, I had been introduced to this student as “she,” and had for quite some time before meeting him, built a mental model of a girl in my mind. My biases took over my conscious mind at points, forcing the female pronoun out of my mouth before my brain could correct itself. It came as no surprise, then, that conversations similar to the one the first week of school persisted.
“Wait,” they’d say to me when I misspoke, “That’s a ‘she?’ I thought it was ‘he.'”
While their delivery wasn’t ideal, I understood their perspectives to a certain extent. This situation was new to them, too, and they were curious about how to handle it. The student, on the other hand, seemed to be rather unbothered by all of it. He would continue about his normal work, seemingly unaware of (or apathetic to) how confused some of his classmates were. I even went so far to ask him one day which pronoun he preferred: he or she.
“Well,” he said, “I’m kind of a tomboy, so it really doesn’t matter.”
His self-assurance was humbling, and his humility, touching. While indirectly advocating for his peers to call him “he,” this student was still comfortable enough existing in between two genders, truly identifying with neither, and somehow breaking the social norms and stereotypes that have dichotomized gender–all by just… being.
“Good to know,” I replied, not addressing the topic with him thereafter. If he was cool, comfortable, and safe, so was I.
But some of the conversations still persisted, and I became concerned that, perhaps, one day this student would overhear them, that he may mistake my other students’ curiosity for criticism, and that he would be hurt by others’ misunderstanding. I knew my kids. They were good-hearted, well-intentioned kids and would never intend to emotionally harm another, and with that understanding, I knew I had to address this topic head-on. This was the teachable moment. It was the moment for me to normalize the ambiguity of gender.
“Girls, girls,” I said to them one day, overhearing yet another speculative conversation about my student’s gender. “Come on over here, and let’s have a chat.”
I brought them into the other room, so as to not let others overhear our conversation.
“Tell me what you’re talking about,” I said.
They looked at each other tentatively, and then back at me. They were clearly afraid they were in trouble. I assured them they weren’t, and they began talking.
“Well,” they said, “she just looks like a boy, but we know she’s a girl.”
“Oh,” I replied, “that sounds kind of confusing. Are you confused by it?”
“Yea,” they said back.
“I get that. Well, have you talked to them about it? Have you asked them if they’re a boy or a girl?”
They both replied that they, in fact, hadn’t.
“Well,” I continued, “He told me the other day that he wants to be called ‘he.’ Would you like to ask him about it?”
They looked at me tentatively again.
“No, not really,” one of the girls replied.
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, “it doesn’t really matter I guess.”
“I see what you’re saying,” I said, agreeing with her. “You know, sometimes I feel like there are parts of me that people would think are girly. I like to sing songs and draw, but I also like to run and play some sports. It makes me feel like there are parts of me that are a boy, and parts of me that are a girl. Do you ever feel that way?”
“Well,” the other girl continued, “I really like to wear dresses, but I also like some ‘boy things,’ like cars and soccer.”
“Very interesting,” I said back. “And I think that if I heard someone talking about me–wondering if I was a boy or a girl–without talking to me about it, my feelings might be hurt, even if that person didn’t mean anything bad by it. What do you think? How might you feel if you overheard someone talking about you?”
They replied with the obligatory “not good,” and it became clear that the message had set in. It wasn’t what they were talking about; it was the fact that they were speculating about someone without actually going to them. I closed the conversation welcoming their curiosities about gender and reminding them that if they have questions they can ask me or their parents, but that speculating about someone’s gender behind their back is likely to do more harm than good, despite their burning curiosities.
The conversation concluded shortly thereafter. Funnily enough, I never heard another peep out of them about it, and as a matter of fact, I saw them interacting in peer groups more frequently after our little conversation. It seemed that, confronting their curiosity head-on and normalizing the ambiguousness of gender identity only did positive things for their relationship with this other student.
A couple of years ago, my first reaction to this would have been to shut down the conversation and tell them that it’s none of their business, but what I know now–and why I’m so grateful to have had this experience–is that students’ quiet discussions about one another come out of simple curiosities about the world around them. Children are constantly trying to construct mental models of the world and rectify the personal narrative they’ve written for themselves thus far. Our job, as educators, is to help them continue to write that story in a supportive, open-minded, and most of all, compassionate way.