Teaching Beyond Tolerance
Illustrator: Ebin Lee
To Whom It May Concern:
I, ___Laura Taylor__ am transitioning from female to male and will now be known as __Tyler Marshall___. I give the district permission to share this information, and I understand I am encouraged not to discuss this transition, gender identity, or sexual orientation during instructional time.
I remember looking across the table at the union rep — a caring old white guy who just shrugged and said, “I think you should sign this.” I wish I could say I resisted in this moment, but I did not. Under our district letterhead, like some sort of policy memo, were the facts about my identity printed carefully, and a clear message — you and your life are not a valuable part of instructional time. I signed it. I was near the end of my first year of teaching, swimming in all kinds of self-doubt about my practice, and self-doubt about how the person I was could have room to exist in the place that I taught. I had been called to a meeting to “discuss my transition” with the head of human resources and my principal after coming out to her — after almost a year of living a double life: Ty at home and Laura at school, the “Ms. Taylor” stinging and making me shrink into myself, students’ confusion and the incredulous “You’re Ms. Taylor?!” As students laughed, I almost felt relief that they were willing to acknowledge what no adults in the majority white, suburban, wealthy, and conservative Christian community where I taught would — at least I was not invisible to them.
When I signed that paper I signed away a lot of myself: my ability to build relationships with my students, to tell them simple stories about my day, my family, or my childhood. The school had sent my students a letter over the summer — “when they have time to process” — about my gender identity, but I was not allowed to discuss it with them the following fall. I became robo-teacher, tensely smiling and saying “good” with a newly-on-testosterone squeaky voice when anyone asked me how my weekend was. My first year teaching as Mr. Marshall was even more tense than the year before — students I had the previous year avoided my eyes. I remember smiling out into the hallways at my former students, and how they stared so hard ahead — the way you do when you are trying not to look at someone — and my smile would fall. I wonder who saw me in those moments.
The “instructional time” I taught my second year was fear-fog, mine and theirs. It was “trans people are OK, as long as you keep them at a distance.” I could walk around the building, even teach my classes, but not have a human connection. I worked very hard for a long time at programming the moves of robo-teacher, if I could just deliver the information in the right way, develop the perfect curriculum, I could break through the fog. But students are smart, and hear silence on the things we are unwilling to name loud and clear. My students were being instructed to be tolerant, but underneath that veneer, students were transferring out of my classes, parents were examining my social media and filing complaints, and co-workers told me that “around here you keep your social justice work under wraps so as not to get on anyone’s radar.” Whelp, too late for that one. My principal said at one point, “Don’t worry, give it a few years and they won’t even know.” She hoped, I think, that I would magically turn into a tiny lumberjack, masculine and fist-bumping students, trans-erased.
The agreement I made has followed me through my second, third, and fourth years as a teacher. Each year I think, if I can just show a little more of my own life and whole self to my students, I can make more room for all of us — trans, queers, whatever kind of non-normative anything in the white suburbs of West Linn, Oregon.
An 8th grader at the end of my first year sought me out for “gender chats” before school. They eventually wrote a petition to start a group called SAGA (Sexuality and Gender Alliance), their parting gift they had been asking for from administration for three years. We started with three students. The following year we ended with 20 — as students told each other about the group, and rushed in to fill the open space like water traveling over parched earth seeking an opening, a crack in the ground. They entered the classroom after school, threw down their bags, and started dancing — we always had a DJ, a nail station, some workshops on walking in heels. My third year, students worked to organize a movie night to show Love, Simon and got censored by the administration for the three words in the movie that reference anal sex, but doggedly worked around it to create a “GAY-me night” that has been a huge success. The SAGA students ended the year with a Pride Picnic complete with rainbow cupcakes and a Billie Eilish dance party on the field with students wearing their trans and pride flags as capes and I felt like we had been victorious — so powerful we were bringing to bear what the administration would not allow me to address in instructional time. We have gone from being tolerated to asking for acceptance. Tolerance is you are allowed to be here. Tolerance is you can be here but don’t make too much of a fuss. The instruction as flat as our school motto of “caring joyful inclusive learning communities” to our queer students. Acceptance is you can be here and be human, you can be here as your whole self, and my world has room for you.
The SAGA students teach what I cannot — they survive and take up space and dance. The lesson is: We are here. We will not wait for your instructional time to allow us in.
But the students who are so deeply afraid are also not waiting. It’s the last day of school of my third year as a teacher, and the 7th-grade boys are ready to step into their power as the rulers of the school now that the 8th graders are graduated and gone. I see a bustle of activity in the classroom across the hall right before our 9:15 a.m. bell to start the day — the way students move quickly, in sync, when the powerful pull of groupthink or belonging is leading.
I see all boys, bumping chests in their eagerness to get in and out of the classroom. They grab the American flag hanging in the teacher’s room then file out, keep moving. I see they have several flags and the national anthem blaring on a Bluetooth speaker. Several “Make America Great Again” hats are dotted through the gaggle of maybe 15 boys. I make eye contact with the teacher whose classroom they emerged from and get a worried shrug. Then the chanting starts: “Two genders! Two genders! Two genders!”
My shock freezes me for a second. The other teacher has been swallowed by her classroom again, probably trying to calm the 6th graders left behind in the wake. This can’t be happening. My mind flashes to the Charlottesville news footage of white men marching against Black Lives Matter organizers with torches, chanting “Jews will not replace us . . .” as I start walking after them. My voice still squeaky and weak from testosterone barely reaches over the national anthem. We make it to the library before I can slow them down.
“Hey gentlemen!” They slow, the few I know from my own classes look sideways avoiding my eyes. I hardly remember what I said — something like: “This can’t happen right now.” I think I was thinking this can’t happen here? Their response is immediate as they shake their American flags “borrowed” from many teachers’ classrooms: “Well, how come they can have gay flags and we can’t have these?” Of course, the backlash.
I’m scared in front of all those boys, which feels silly to say about some excited 13-year-olds from a grown person. Not that they will hurt me, but of any real conversation coming from that moment, and all the diversions that are harder to contest when you aren’t standing in your own power. I default, recalling an earlier conversation with my vice principal where he asked me to tell the SAGA students not to wear their flags anymore — fearing a backlash just like this.
I found his words coming out of my mouth, cotton-sticky like when you are telling a lie. “No one is allowed to wear or carry anything that disrupts the learning environment. It’s in the Constitution. Not even the SAGA kids.”
My betrayal in this moment — of myself, my students — flattens any further interaction or possibility as I automo-tron-ically instruct them to put their flags away and head to class. I don’t know why no other teachers joined in that moment; they were all busy in their classrooms readying the instructional time. I am also teaching in this moment so many things I don’t want to teach. I am teaching them to push aside their feelings and go to class. I am teaching them to value some old dead-white-guy document over the impact they are having on their community. I am teaching them that our learning environment does not include queer or trans visibility. I am teaching them, ultimately, that I am afraid of having the conversation with them, and that intimidation can get trans and queer people to put their flags away.
We fight for our instructional time in so many ways, we fight for smaller classes so our students can be treated with dignity, to have materials to support their learning, and to have time to do our best by them. We also have to fight for the instructional time we are communicating every single day, in the hallways and in what parts of our lives we allow ourselves to share. During the beginning of this year, as the students’ conflicts around representation have been continuing to unfold, I used to listen to Jennifer Gonzalez’s “Lessons in Personhood” from the Cult of Pedagogy Podcast on the way to school on loop:
They are watching. Every moment students spend in our rooms, amid the business of the day, the paper pushing and content coverage, amid the setup and teardown of projects, they hear everything we say. About ourselves. About the world. About them. They watch how we handle ourselves when we are pressed for time and when we receive gifts and when we screw things up. . . . Whatever it is we put before them, they will learn from it.
What am I teaching my students about being trans? What am I teaching them about being a person? I want so desperately to model to them being grounded and present in the face of fear, not shrinking ourselves as white nationalism and conservativism resurge in the United States. I want to be risking as much as they are, in asserting our existence without waiting for permission, about speaking freely without waiting to be invited.
In the spring of my third year, I almost left the district. I couldn’t reconcile my vision of the world with the kind of human I was showing my students. I took a sick day to go to the Oregon teacher job fair, and of course, ran into my principal, which forced me to be honest with her about how the silence was crushing me. She encouraged me to reach out to human resources about the agreement, so I wrote them, and explained how much humanity had been erased by our agreement on “instructional time.” I asked them to never have another trans teacher, or any teacher, sign a document like that again.
Even while I contend with the shame of how much of myself I have folded up and away in these past four years, my students’ refusal to be silenced calls me out into the space they are taking — with their flags and dance parties and “that’s pretty gay” choruses over everything they love. I won’t show my students that fear has constricted my throat any longer, or that an agreement on letterhead can continue to erase my humanity, or that so many averted eyes can keep me from continuing to look out with a smile. Our humanity as educators is the power that those who seek to privatize and disinvest in public education don’t want us to know that we have, because it cannot be regulated by contracts or secret closed-door agreements. A teacher in their full humanity and power can recognize the same in their students, and demand better from the education system that dehumanizes all of us.