Teaching that supports gender-variant children
By Melissa Bollow Tempel
Alie arrived at our 1st-grade classroom wearing a sweatshirt with a hood. I asked her to take off her hood, and she refused. I thought she was just being difficult and ignored it. After breakfast we got in line for art, and I noticed that she still had not removed her hood. When we arrived at the art room, I said: “Allie, I’m not playing. It’s time for art. The rule is no hoods or hats in school.”
She looked up with tears in her eyes and I realized there was something wrong. Her classmates went into the art room and we moved to the art storage area so her classmates wouldn’t hear our conversation. I softened my tone and asked her if she’d like to tell me what was wrong.
“My ponytail,” she cried.
“Can I see?” I asked.
She nodded and pulled down her hood. Allie’s braids had come undone overnight and there hadn’t been time to redo them in the morning, so they had to be put back in a ponytail. It was high up on the back of her head like those of many girls in our class, but I could see that to Allie it just felt wrong. With Allie’s permission, I took the elastic out and re-braided her hair so it could hang down.
“How’s that?” I asked.
She smiled. “Good,” she said and skipped off to join her friends in art.
‘Why Do You Look Like a Boy?’
Allison was biologically a girl but felt more comfortable wearing Tony Hawk long-sleeved T-shirts, baggy jeans, and black tennis shoes. Her parents were accepting and supportive. Her mother braided her hair in cornrows because Allie thought it made her look like Will Smith’s son, Trey, in the remake of The Karate Kid. She preferred to be called Allie. The first day of school, children who hadn’t been in Allie’s class in kindergarten referred to her as “he.”
I didn’t want to assume I knew how Allie wanted me to respond to the continual gender mistakes, so I made a phone call home and Allie’s mom put me on speakerphone.
“Allie,” she said, “Ms. Melissa is on the phone. She would like to know if you want her to correct your classmates when they say you are a boy, or if you would rather that she just doesn’t say anything.”
Allie was shy on the phone. “Um …
tell them that I am a girl,” she whispered.
The next day when I corrected classmates and told them that Allie was a girl, they asked her a lot of questions that she wasn’t prepared for: “Why do you look like a boy?” “If you’re a girl, why do you always wear boys’ clothes?” Some even told her that she wasn’t supposed to wear boys’ clothes if she was a girl. It became evident that I would have to address gender directly in order to make the classroom environment more comfortable for Allie and to squash the gender stereotypes that my 1st graders had absorbed in their short lives.