"And it is all for just one kid."
I heard slightly different versions of that sentiment expressed for several weeks, and each time it made me pause. I never responded, though, mostly because I wasn't sure what I thought about the whole situation myself. I just knew that the implied frustration that we would go out of our way for "just one kid" had triggered some kind of visceral reaction and it wouldn't let me go.
In a way, our entire community, what we held to be true about our school, had been challenged. While the world was reading about and speculating about the transition of Bruce Jenner to Caitlyn Jenner, we had our own gender identity drama going on. Most of us were unaware of what was happening until our principal called us into his office, a grade level at a time, to inform us that a first-grader was adamant about wearing dresses to school. Then, we were handed a copy of board policy regarding discrimination and told that we would be alerted to when the student would be coming to school dressed in traditionally female attire.
I walked away from that meeting with more questions than answers. Board policy? How was that going to help this first grader deal with the questions and teasing that were bound to arise? How would that help my third graders to understand what was happening and help them to be supportive instead of cruel? It seemed unreal that this was occurring at our school. This was just something you read about, right? Even though we were later given some information from the Gender Spectrum website, we seemed so ill-equipped to handle what lay before us.
I'm not going to try to pretend that I understand gender dysphoria. I'm not sure anyone who hasn't experienced it possibly could. I did try. I tried to imagine what feelings you would have to lead you to the conclusion that you were living life as the wrong gender. How would you know? It was something that I just couldn't wrap my head around.
Ultimately, I decided I really didn't need to in order to understand and empathize with the situation that was unfolding at my school. Even though gender identity itself was something I had never had to deal with, there were some elements with which I could definitely identify. I began to consider the situation from this young boy's mother's point of view and thought about how difficult it must be to think of sending her child to school to face the inevitable teasing, ostracizing, and worse. As a mother, I know that you worry about your child even under the best of circumstances. My own child has had problems at times resulting from an overly sensitive disposition, and I live in fear of him suffering the consequences of openly displaying his feelings in public. The day he told me that he had no one to play with at school broke my heart. More than anything, mothers want their children to be happy and to be spared any pain, even though we know that isn't really possible. Every child will need to learn to deal with heartache and disappointment. But how much greater must it be for someone who stands out so far from the norm? My heart ached for his mom knowing what they all were up against and how cruel people can be. I also thought what a brave and supportive mother she must be to seek answers to her questions and to be willing to do what was best for her child.
I thought, too, of this young boy willing to risk so much in order to be who he believes in his heart he is. I know many have criticized those who have called Caitlyn Jenner brave for her transition, but really, how many of us would be willing to risk everything to show our true selves to the world? Do we not construct facades to protect that true, vulnerable self from the masses? How much of ourselves do we hide on a daily basis, saving those pieces of ourselves for only the chosen few? How much do we refuse to acknowledge even to ourselves? And yet here was a child believing so strongly in something, he was willing to take an enormous risk. That sounds pretty brave to me.
Finally, I came back to the sentiment of "just one kid." Yes, we were spending valuable time, time which we have way too little of, to focus on just this one kid. But that is what makes teaching such a difficult, and ultimately rewarding, job. That is our purpose. To be there for just one kid. For every "one kid" that walks through our door. We get lucky sometimes, and the things we do meet the needs of many of those kids at once. But each child needs and deserves something special from us. The bonus of this situation is, if we do it right, we really haven't spent all that time and energy for "just one kid." We will be teaching all our students about acceptance and kindness and diversity and the importance of judging people not by what they see on the outside but by what resides in the heart of each individual. We will be teaching them to not act out in fear of that which they do not understand but to seek understanding and compassion instead. If we do it right, we will be one step closer to making our world a much better place.