Carol Michaels Foresta is the former principal at Bread and Roses Integrated Arts High School, a small, racially diverse public school founded in 1997 in central Harlem, New York. The school is organized around principles of activism and artistic expression. Teachers and students meet weekly to design curriculum, especially around issues of racism and sexism. This is the story of how the staff responded when a tenth grader presented an unusual request, even for an alternative school.
How would you feel if I wore a dress to school?” The student sitting at the conference table asked.
“Hmm. Why do you ask?” I replied.
“I just want to know.”
“Is this something you are seriously considering or is it a theoretical question?”
“Well, I have been considering it, I just don’t know if I’ll be able to deal with the consequences.”
“What do you imagine they might be?”
“Well, anything is possible. I might lose a lot of friends. Someone might get rough. Some of the adults might get mad. I might get kicked out of school because I have to defend myself.”
“Miguel, what if your mother found out? After all, if you get suspended for fighting, we would have to call her and she would want to know why you were fighting.”
“That wouldn’t be good. I’d probably get thrown out of my house. Or, maybe my uncle would come over and beat me up and then I’d get thrown out.”
“You’re not responsible for the consequences of your actions, only the actions themselves. You have the right to wear anything you want. But, are you sure you want to wear a dress to school?”
“I think about it every day. I have some support from my friends, and there is a teacher or two who probably would have my back.”
“What’s the point?”
“I’m not sure yet, I just think there is one. I guess I have to do it and discover why as part of the process.”
“I will support you, just let me know what you need. Also, be sure we check in every day, in the morning and again in the afternoon. You will need to be very patient. Most people won’t understand what you’re doing.”
“I’m not sure I understand it either but I feel driven. There’s something inside me that wants to come out. I can’t think about homework, class work, anything except wearing a dress.”
Miguel got up from the conference table. I watched. I felt a bit nervous. I wanted to be more encouraging but couldn’t find the right vocabulary. If I acted like a cheerleader would it be more damaging in the end? After all, he hadn’t decided definitely yet. I figured we had a few days to process his unusual request.
The next morning, Miguel arrived wearing a pink T-shirt that had a large “S” on it, a black pleated skirt, stockings and heels. I saw him as he emerged from the staircase and made a brief stop on the second floor in front of my office.
“Nice Superman shirt,” I volunteered lamely.
“Thanks, but it’s Supergirl,” he shot back with a big smile as he twirled around showing off the Supergirl displayed on his back.
His face wore a big toothy smile. I smiled back and told him to keep in touch, as three of his best girl friends emerged from the stairs behind him. They were giggling and chatting excitedly as they went off to class together. I flashed back on the days I would have laughed at the audacity of a friend who decided to challenge the norms. But as a principal, I thought of the violent acts that have befallen others with the courage to come out or dress up.
Miguel stopped by my office at the end of the day. He talked calmly about the various homophobic remarks he had fielded. He didn’t seem shaken by any of the comments his classmates made. We spent more time discussing the best place for him to change his clothing when he arrived in the morning.
The next day, Miguel’s science teacher asked him to leave class. Miguel came to my office and was pretty angry about what happened in class. According to Miguel, some of the boys refused to work with him on a group assignment. The teacher lost patience with the situation and asked Miguel to leave the class. Based on our conversation, I decided to call an emergency staff meeting directly after school in the library.
There were 27 teachers and ten members of support staff, including student teachers, school aides, and secretaries, seated at three p.m. for our community meeting. I began the meeting by talking about students’ rights. I thought it was important that everyone understood that in a school dedicated to developing activist citizens in a democracy, the rights of students were inviolable. This meant that if one of our most fragile students/citizens was unsafe, we were all unsafe. I talked about how it was critical that Miguel not be asked to leave any class merely because his dress provided a distraction.
We had an interesting meeting. Some staff members felt we should call Miguel’s mother and inform her about how he was dressing. We discussed whether we would be willing to take responsibility for finding Miguel a place to live if his mother threw him out of the house. We also questioned whether we could adequately physically protect Miguel if other members of his family physically attacked him. We agreed that we did not have the resources to support Miguel, to provide him with shelter and the love and nurturing that he could get from his parents and other members of his family.
Finally, we talked about the Civil Rights Movement and what lessons were to be learned when individuals were the first to challenge the values of a community. Some African-American teachers felt that this situation was not analogous. Others felt there were direct parallels. I looked around the room and noted that of the 37 people seated in the room, 20 of them were women. Of the 20 women, not one was wearing a dress or skirt. I remembered a time not too long ago when female teachers were not allowed to wear pants to school. I wondered at the kind of courage it took women to move together to force that systemic change. That simple desire to be able to be guided by your own sense of propriety rather than by societal values meant that some individuals had to create a small earthquake in the school system.
In the end, the teacher who expelled Miguel from class asked if I was ordering teachers not to do so. I said I was, in order to protect Miguel’s rights. But I felt if the adults in our community showed real support for Miguel and his struggle to express himself, it would not be necessary to exclude anyone. Someone asked how he could show Miguel he supported him. I replied somewhat flippantly, “Well, perhaps some of the men here could wear a dress to school; after all, every woman in the room is wearing pants!”
The next morning I did not see Miguel when he arrived at school. Instead, I got a phone call from a staff member on the fifth floor about 20 minutes after classes were meant to begin. The staff member told me I’d better hurry upstairs because there was a crowd unwilling to disperse in the hallway. I asked if Miguel was at the center of things and she replied that she could not see much because the students were so thickly clustered. I took off and climbed the four flights like a mountain goat. When I hit the fifth floor, I saw immediately what had brought the alarming phone call. There was a large crowd of young people in the main hallway, peering into a classroom. When I got to the classroom, having dispersed most of the group, I asked one of the students what was going on.
She replied, “It is unusual to see a male wearing a dress, except for Miguel, who everyone expects to wear dresses.”
I said, “So it’s not Miguel that’s disrupting things.”
“Oh, no,” came the quick retort. “It’s Tim, and he doesn’t know how to bend over when he’s wearing a dress. Besides, he has hairy legs and he didn’t bother to shave. At least Miguel has the good taste to shave.”
I looked past her into the classroom to see a mustached, hairy Tim standing in front of his class, teaching, in a short, stylish, purple plaid dress borrowed from his wife.
That day, four male teachers wore dresses or skirts to school. They taught their classes. They marked papers. They went to lunch. They met with their advisories. There were no disruptions to the usual day after the initial surprised reaction to their choice of attire.
A few weeks later, Miguel visited my office early one morning. He was dressed in slacks and a shirt. He looked like a typical adolescent boy. I was concerned.
“Are you all right? Has anyone been bothering you?” I asked him.
“Not more than usual,” he answered.
“Well, then why have you changed back to male clothes?” I asked, as nonchalantly as I could manage. There was a long pause before he replied, “I think I’ve made my point.”
After Miguel left my office, I reflected on the profound impact of his actions. I ordered pizza and called together a group of student leaders, including Miguel, for a meeting that day. We discussed what they felt were some of the most pressing issues confronting students. I asked them if they would be willing to organize a day dedicated to social justice where our school could struggle out a response in a series of ongoing workshops. We agreed that students had to be the initiators and take major responsibility for presenting the workshops. They would recruit teachers or outside facilitators to work with them. We all agreed workshops would reflect mixed grade levels, thus insuring a lively conversation among students.
After two months of planning, the students were able to teach the entire curriculum for a day. Two of the 15 workshops specifically discussed homophobia. Miguel taught one, with the assistance of one of our special education teachers. Another student taught a workshop about heterosexism with the assistance of an outside facilitator. This day was so powerful that we all agreed it had to become a tradition and it had to happen at least two times a year.
When Miguel revisited my office dressed in traditional male clothing again, I immediately assumed that we failed to support him in his unusual request. I reminded Miguel that I would support him always and that I knew he had real courage. “That’s interesting,” he replied, “I thought Tim had real courage. He came to school wearing a dress and didn’t shave his legs!”