Believe Me the First Time
Illustrator: Lois Bielefeld
“I’m not a boy! I’m a girl! I’m a girl! I’m a girl!” I followed the words echoing through my suddenly silent 2nd-grade classroom. There sat Alexis on the floor with Diego; puzzle pieces were strewn across the floor.
“What’s wrong, Alexis?” I asked. “You sound upset.”
“Every day someone asks me if I am a boy or a girl, and every time I answer that I’m a girl, but they just keep asking. Why can’t they believe me?”
I thought back to the many conversations I’d had with Alexis about this topic since the beginning of the school year. Alexis is a bright, confident child who expresses herself with ease. When I heard someone ask her if she was a boy or a girl, I would check in: “How do you feel when your classmates ask you about your gender?”
And each time her reply was pretty much the same. “I’m OK. It’s not really their fault. They just didn’t know.”
Several times I asked Alexis if she thought it would be a good idea to discuss this issue as a class—not to call attention to her but to explore in general the issue of gender. Each time she responded: “No, I don’t think we need to do that.”
“Why not?” I once asked.
“Because it’s not that big a deal.”
I told Alexis that if she changed her mind, she should tell me, but I felt tugged in two directions. As a teacher, I frequently explore the “isms” with my students (racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and so on) as a critical piece of teaching from an anti-bias perspective. At the same time, I wanted to respect Alexis’ decision to hold off—though for how long, I was not sure.
Now I pulled Alexis aside. By this time she was in tears. “I tried to be patient with people. I said they were asking me because they didn’t know. But I don’t understand why they don’t believe me when I say I am a girl. Why do they have to keep asking?”
As I gave Alexis a long hug, I thought about another student, one who’d been in my class two years prior. Classmates often expressed confusion as to whether Allie was a girl or a boy, too. And, as in Alexis’ situation, classmates often did not accept her response. I flashed back to the time that year when we were discussing a story about children who wore uniforms to school. I’d asked my students if they would like to wear school uniforms. Allie’s arm shot up in the air with fierce determination. “Yes! I would totally love it if kids wore uniforms in our school. That way all of us would be dressed the same and kids would finally stop asking me if I am a boy or a girl.”
Alexis and I Plan a Teaching Unit
Back in the present, I said to Alexis: “I think it’s time to deal with gender issues head-on with our class. Would you consider developing and leading a unit with me?” The tears were gone. “I sure would!”
The words spilled out of my mouth before I realized I’d offered to co-create a teaching unit with a student. I felt excited at the idea, but I’d never done it before. I often respond to issues and interests that emerge from my students by developing a unit—but collaborating with one of my students on creating and teaching a unit was definitely a first.
“How about if we meet after school on Wednesday? I’ll check with your mom.”
By this point in the year, we’d already had numerous and ongoing discussions about ways to build a supportive community in our classroom—and how, when we make a mistake, we can repair harm with one another. So we had a context for talking about gender in ways that would support Alexis. She was well liked by her peers and accepted as an integral part of our classroom community. I did not believe Alexis’ classmates were intentionally trying to bully her—they were genuinely confused about her gender identity. However, I wanted my students to understand that consistently questioning someone about their gender identity can be experienced as bullying.
A few days later, we began our collaboration. “Alexis, why don’t you first look through the books in our classroom library and pull out anything that addresses issues of gender and accepting people for who they are.”
Twenty minutes later she brought over her book selections. I was excited to look at her pile until I realized it consisted of only seven books.
“Were there any others, Alexis?”
“Nope, this was it.”
When I looked through the books she brought me and thought about the books we had, I realized she was right. “Wow!” I exclaimed. “This sure doesn’t seem like enough books when the topic of gender is so incredibly important.” Definitely one of those teacher moments when I realized I needed to do far better.
Alexis had already read each of those seven books. I asked her what she enjoyed—or perhaps didn’t enjoy—about the books.
“There’s nothing I didn’t enjoy. But what I did enjoy is that when I read these books, I felt accepted for who I am.”
A few days later, Alexis ran up to me when she arrived at school. “Ms. Dale, I thought I’d bring you one of my books from home in case you want to read it.” The book was Meet Polkadot, by Talcott Broadhead.
“Tell me what the book’s about, Alexis.”
“This book is so cool! It’s all about a person named Polkadot and how when they were born, they didn’t get called any gender.”
“And what do you like most about this book?”
“I like that the book celebrates whatever gender someone feels they are, and that it’s all really OK! You can borrow the book if you’d like to.”
“I’d love to, Alexis. Thank you for sharing this book with me.” Now I knew that Alexis viewed herself as an integral participant in shaping our unit.
Alexis Finds a 4th-Grade Mentor
In the meantime, I learned from a colleague that Allie, my former student, had been experiencing a lot of bullying from other 4th graders because of how she dressed. I wondered if I could help. I spoke with Allie’s mom and asked her if Allie might be interested in the Peace Club I was running twice a week during recess and lunch. One of the Peace Club’s topics was how to deal with bullying at our school. I asked Allie if she would like to be our 4th-grade mentor, and she agreed. Allie and Alexis’ brother had been friends since K5.
During Allie’s first session of Peace Club, the students were making friendship bracelets. I sat down at an empty group of desks, only to be joined by two students who’d been up getting supplies: Allie and Alexis. I introduced them to each other. Alexis said: “I knew who you were because my brother is in your class. He told me you get bullied for the same things that I do.” Then Alexis turned to me. “I have an idea! How about if Allie works on the gender project with us?”
I thought that was a great idea and asked Alexis to explain the project to Allie. And so our project expanded; we were now a group of three.
We met three more times before launching the gender unit in my 2nd-grade class. First we talked about different ways to approach the issue. After the brainstorming, both Allie and Alexis spoke about ways they had experienced bullying. Alexis began:
Last summer I went to camp. On the registration form my parents said I was a girl. When I got to camp I waited in the check-in line with the other girls, but then this person who worked for the camp said I was in the wrong line. I tried to tell him that I was in the right line, but he kept arguing with me and showed me where they’d changed me to the boys’ cabin. Finally it got worked out. But, in the meantime, all the other kids stared at me. I felt awful.
Allie listened intently, then shared her own story:
One time I went with my mom to a store to get some new clothes. We were in the boys department because that is where I can find the clothes that I like the best. This saleslady came up to us and asked if we needed help finding something. I told her I was looking for some shirts and pants. She said “For you?!” so loud that everybody in the whole store could hear. I said, “Yes, for me.” Then she kept telling me I had to go into the girls department because I was in the wrong part of the store. I felt really, really bad. And so did my mom. We left the store and went someplace else.
“That must have been really awful.”
“Yeah, it was.”
Soon we began to map out our unit. I said that I often found it helpful, when beginning a new unit with students, to find out their beliefs and thoughts about the subject. “Perhaps we could begin by giving students different categories to think about and comment on. Clothes, for example: Which clothes do students think of as ‘girls’ clothes’ or ‘boys’ clothes’ or clothes that are worn by both girls and boys?”
Alexis excitedly piped in, “We could do a Venn diagram!” Allie and I both thought that was a great idea. At first we talked about two interlocking circles—one labeled girls, one labeled boys—with the overlapping space in the middle labeled both. Allie paused for a second and then said: “But I think there will be a problem if we do the circles like this. Won’t the space called both need to be larger?”
Alexis chimed in: “I get what you’re talking about. If we make the both space larger, that would kind of give away what we’re thinking.” Alexis and Allie then decided to make three equal-sized circles on a long piece of butcher paper: girls on one side, boys on the other, both in the middle. We brainstormed the categories we wanted students to think about: sports, games, toys, animals, music, colors, songs, movies, hairstyles, clothes, shoes, and swimwear.
Meanwhile, our PTA announced mini-grants to teachers for classroom supplies, so I was able to purchase new children’s books on sexism and gender. When I shared the new books with the girls, they pored over them excitedly.
“Oh, look at this book! It’s all about a woman astronaut.”
“Jacob’s New Dress, that is so cool!”
“This book is about girl inventors. Did you know a woman invented windshield wipers?” We talked about ways to incorporate the books into our project and decided that after the Three Circles Activity, students would choose a book to read and create a poster that addressed that book’s main message.
A few days later, I ran into Allie’s mom at school. She commented how happy Allie was being in Peace Club and how excited she was to work on our gender unit. Her words meant a lot. I also checked in with Alexis’ mom several times. As we planned the unit, I asked myself more than once if discussing a child’s experiences with gender so openly with her classmates was overstepping my bounds. I wondered if this was something that parents would prefer to do on their own. But Alexis’ mom reassured me that the unit we were creating had her blessing and, in fact, was appreciated.
“I Want to Shout Out My Feelings”
As we worked on the unit, the girls deepened their relationship and shared more of their experiences. “One time my family was eating at a Mexican restaurant,” Alexis said. “The waiter kept referring to me as ‘el niño’ and I had to keep saying, ‘¡Soy una niña! ¡Soy una niña!’ But the waiter just didn’t seem to really believe me.”
“What do you say when someone treats you unkindly?” I asked. Allie explained that she often felt a lot of pressure to be kind, and that it was sometimes hard. “If someone bullies me, it’s on purpose and so it’s hard to be kind back. But if someone’s just wondering if I’m a girl or a boy, it’s easier to be nice because they’re curious and don’t know.”
Alexis added, “Sometimes I want to shout out my feelings at the top of my lungs and tell people how I really feel.”
“And what would you shout out?” I asked.
“I’m a girl! I’m a girl! Believe me when I tell you—I’m a girl!”
“Yeah, it’s like people not accepting that we’re the experts on who we are.”
The next time we met, I began by asking if there was anything about our previous conversations that they wanted to discuss.
“I was thinking that the worst kind of bullying is not being able to use the bathroom because of the sign,” Allie said.
“Say more about that,” I suggested.
“Well, when we go to the bathroom, sometimes we’re in lines—like a boy line and a girl line. And sometimes when I get into the girl line, people say, ‘No—you’re supposed to be in the boy line.'”
In a quiet voice, Alexis added: “That happens to me, too. One time when I was taking a theater class, we had a bathroom break. A girl told the teachers: ‘A boy went in the girls’ bathroom! A boy went in the girls’ bathroom! A boy went in the girls’ bathroom!’ I told her, ‘I’m not a boy, I’m a girl.’ But she kept arguing with me. The other kids know if I’m a boy or a girl. They just don’t accept it.”
I asked if there was anything else they would like to add before moving into the planning portion of our meeting. Alexis looked at Allie with sheer joy and said, “I am so glad I know you, Allie! It’s like finally I feel someone really understands me!”
“Thanks,” said Allie. “I was thinking the same thing.”
We began to plan out the following day’s lesson. I began by asking: “How would you explain to your classmates what this project is about? For example, a unit on. . . “
“I think I would say we are doing a unit about gender problems,” said Allie.
“Gender problems,” I echoed.
“No!” responded both girls.
“So what is it you want? You want gender. . . “
“Acceptance,” Alexis said. Allie agreed.
I agreed as well. “I find it’s often more powerful to say what we want instead of what we are against.”
We created an agenda for the following day’s project, I typed it up and made copies, and we were ready to go.
Alexis and Allie Lead the Class
The following day, my students gathered together in a circle on the classroom rug and Alexis started things off by introducing herself. After Allie did the same, Alexis explained that she and Allie often get bullied because of the clothes they choose to wear. “Lots of times we don’t feel accepted for who we are,” added Allie.
Alexis continued: “And so we are doing a project about gender acceptance and trying to let people know and understand that we are girls—no matter how we dress.”
“What do you think gender is?” Allie asked the students.
Emma immediately responded, “If you are a boy or a girl.”
Allie confidently explained: “Gender could be a lot of possibilities. Like if someone is born a girl or a boy, and they felt that was the way they were supposed to be in their life. But gender could also be someone who is born a boy who felt like they were a girl, or someone who is born a girl and wished they were a boy.”
“Or maybe,” I added, “someone feels like they’re in the middle—they don’t want to have to choose boy or girl. Whatever someone feels inside themselves, that’s OK.
“Even if you feel like a girl and everyone knows you’re a girl, you still might want to do things that some people think are boy things—like Power Rangers. Or you might be a boy and want to play with dolls or wear jewelry. So lots of people don’t always want to have to choose between boy and girl when there are unfair rules about gender.”
Alexis asked if there were any questions and then Allie explained the Three Circles Activity. Alexis described the 12 categories and gave everyone a copy of them, along with some sticky notes. I reiterated the instructions: “Let’s start with the category Sports. Ask yourself: ‘Can I think of a sport that only a girl would like—or a sport that only a boy would like—or a sport that both boys and girls might like?’ Write the name of that sport on a sticky note and put it on the appropriate circle. Don’t worry about spelling. Take your time to think before writing.”
The room bustled for 20 minutes as the students explored ideas, wrote them down, and stuck them onto one of the large circles. Alexis and Allie then took turns reading through many of the sticky notes, and then asked, “Were there some ideas you had an opinion about?” The room was alive with comments, questions, agreements, disagreements, and lots of thinking!
We Practice Peacemaking
As we talked about responses to the Clothes category, I asked: “Why do you think some people bullied Alexis and Allie for the kinds of t-shirts and pants they wore?”
Katie commented: “Maybe someone bullies someone else because they’re thinking, ‘You’re not like me. If you’re different from me, then you’re not wearing the right kinds of clothes. So I’ll bully you.’ And, like Alexis said in the beginning, people keep asking if she’s a boy or a girl. When they’re not sure, they just bully her.”
Emma slowly raised her hand. “I’ve been thinking about something. I’ve seen people stare at Alexis because they think she’s a boy. And they make gross faces because they think she is a boy going into the girls’ bathroom.”
“Did you say anything to them?” I asked.
“One time I did. I said, ‘Excuse me, she’s a girl, so she does have a right to go in the girls’ bathroom. So leave her alone.’ And then they actually stopped bothering her. But the year before, I didn’t say anything because I really didn’t know if Alexis was a girl or a boy.”
I explained that what Emma did was important because she was trying to interrupt the bullying behavior that was taking place. I added that if you see bullying and don’t say anything, it’s like sending the message that it is OK to treat people that way. “What you might do is say something to interrupt the bullying or, if that doesn’t solve the problem, go ask an adult to help you. Who wants to act the problem out, along with a way to try to solve it?”
Many hands went up. Alexis wanted to play herself and Emma played the person who wouldn’t believe Alexis. Katie interrupted the bullying by saying, “Excuse me, but she told you she is a girl. You should just believe her.”
Reuben blurted out, “And you should believe her the first time!” followed by applause from several of the students.
I asked: “How many of you have heard someone asking if a student was a boy or a girl, not believing the answer they received, so they kept asking the question over and over again?”
All the students’ hands went up. “And how many of you think you know what you might say if you overheard that type of thing again?”
All the students’ hands went up again.
“And what you are doing is called?”
“Have any of you heard a boy being made fun of in a similar way?” No one had. “But is that something you could interrupt in the same kind of way?”
“Think about the many ways we’ve tried to help each other within our classroom learn to make better choices about how we treat each other. A really important part of peacemaking is helping other people make better choices, and it takes a lot of courage to do that. Anything else anyone wants to say?”
The room was quiet for a moment and then a few students spoke.
“I feel sorry for you, Alexis and Allie, that you got bullied just for being yourselves.”
“I am sorry for how people treated you. And I am glad you are my friends.”
Diego was the last to speak. “I am sorry I didn’t believe you were a girl the first time you told me that. I will always believe you now.”
In the weeks that followed, students chose one of our new picture books. Most students worked in pairs, a few preferred to work alone. After reading their books and figuring out the central message, students created posters. Although the original plan was to take a proactive stance against bullying by displaying the posters in our schools’ hallways at the start of the next school year, instead the posters were included in a multimedia exhibit on androgyny by a local photographer, Lois Bielefeld (see artist’s bio).
Doing any classroom project for the first time always has an element of the unknown. I especially did not know how this unit would turn out with students sharing the helm for the project’s development and implementation. What guided me more than anything was knowing that this unit evolved from the lives of two of my students and the incessant bullying they had experienced. It was their story that needed to be told, their experiences that needed to be understood, and their voices that needed to be heard.
Along the way, I learned how important it is to not put children in a “binary box.” The traditional gender binary system is one that requires everyone to identify and be raised as either a boy or a girl—based on the sex one is assigned at birth. This rigidity forces some children to live out an identity that is not their own. And rigid gender stereotypes limit all of us in our thinking, creativity, and life choices. Children need time and freedom to explore their own gender identification and to know that the choices they make do not have to be static.
At the unit’s completion I asked Alexis what these past few weeks meant to her. “I think everybody now accepts me for who I am.” Raising both arms high in the air, she grinned and loudly exclaimed, “Finally!”
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