My friend Joy just shared this article about a first-grade teacher who addressed gender variance gently and respectfully throughout the school year. I read it laying in bed with Woody cuddled beside me, asking me to read him strings of words and paragraphs, interpreting the pictures.
My sister, Woody's aunt, experienced gender variance from toddlerhood through age nine or so. I remember her saying at age two that she didn't want the doll my mom had bought her for her birthday. She accepted only blue bottles. She played with He-Man and Transformers and Legos and skateboarded and wore red and black and blue. She had short hair, though my mom wouldn't let her get a buzz. She wanted to change her name to Spike in kindergarten, and Rick in second grade. Her favorite TV shows were The Dukes of Hazard and Simon and Simon. My mom took her to a monster truck rally when she was seven, and it might have been the favorite thing that happened to her that whole year.
My mom accepted her how she was. I remember once, my mom tried to explain to me that she herself had wanted to play with her brother's toy trains when she was younger, and how her own mother, my grandmother, did not let her. My mom said this had made her sad, and it didn't make any sense, so she thought my sister ought to be able to play with whatever she wanted to. She also told me that my sister would probably grow out of it.
But I rejected my sister's gender variance behavior, and my mother's explanation didn't seem to get at the heart of the problem. I was angry at my sister for flouting the dominant social customs. I was a big-boned, lazy-eyed, coke-bottle bespectacled, mulleted, awkward preteen with few friends; my place in elementary school society was too low and my own self-esteem too fragile to risk going out on the limb where my sister sat, alone. At home, worried and anxious about how her deviance reflected on me, I shouted down her choice of dress and warned her what others would think, reminding her of the gender expectations she was born into.
But then, in kinder, gentler moments, when it was just us, two sisters playing in the playroom, I was grateful that she'd play Hordak, the Evil Horde emperor, to my She-Ra, Princess of Power. I think my mom bought me the villainous Purple Pieman of Porcupine Peak just so my sister and I could play Strawberry Shortcake together. Still, I was neither brave nor skilled enough to stick up for her when others made fun or questioned her behavior. I shrugged and said nothing, or mumbled some half-defense about her knowing that she was a girl, despite all the evidence that pointed to the contrary.
My mom switched her to Catholic school in 5th grade. She joined the track and soccer teams and excelled at both. She made friends. Things relaxed.
She and I have only once or twice talked about it as adults. We are pretty well versed in self-help, and long ago identified the cycle of psychological mistreatment that trickled down through our family, landing on her, the youngest child. And of course we have compassionate adult perspectives now on the plentiful cruel children at school and in our neighborhood whose unmitigated looks, comments, and rough treatment left their marks.
Still, I have basketfuls of memories that make me want to cry at how my sister suffered, especially when the suffering was caused or worsened by me.
I told Woody about this, all of this. It's timely for us. A few months ago, he began pushing back against my rejection of gender expectations. He told me "I know you don't think purple is a girl's color, but some people do, and I do." It was one of those moments when I had a split second to decide whether to come down hard or soft. I went with soft. I shrugged and told him I knew lots of boys who liked purple, and reminded him of his father's extensive collection of purple clothing, happily trotted out on Saturdays in the fall when LSU was playing football.
When I finished telling Woody my story about his aunt, he didn't say anything, though it was clear he had been listening closely. And then, Fox needed some immediate assistance with snot clean-up in the other room, so I had to get up.
Like the teacher in this article, I think it makes the most sense for this subject and others to be brought up regularly and gently in small, personal ways rather than forced into our kids' consciousness through big, didactic, preachy, or shame-filled lessons. Will it be enough? Time will tell. Meanwhile, I offer Woody soundbyte responses to surprising unkindnesses from other children. Sometimes, having the words ready helps. And we seek out and spend time with people who treat each other and us well, people who accept one another's mistakes and learning curves, but who hold the line against unkindnesses and offer plentiful alternatives.
This, to me, is the best defense against ignorance and cruelty. I think we can help each other to be more confident in our compassion. We can teach each other and learn together how love and hurt work in the human mind and heart. We can celebrate the moments that we act in accordance with our highest values. And we can forgive ourselves in the moment and in the past when we don't. We are all worthy of that.
My son Woody turned six in November of 2011. That would have been the kindergarten year for most kids, 180 days that mark the beginning of the school career. But Woody did his learning in the big, wide, beautiful world, without school being a part of it.
I'm Teresa Honey, and I kept this blog to document this time in my son's life, to share pictures and stories with far-away friends and relatives, and to add ours to the many stories of families living rich, engaging, loving lives with learning happening all the time and in many forms, totally inseparable from every other part of being human.
Here you'll find 180 or so learning moments recorded from August, 2011 to April, 2012 in the life of a 5-turned-6-year-old radically unschooled kid.