28 February 2011

Second-Graders and Gender

I work in a local school district with before- and after-school Title I programming. Since I'm working mostly with the middle range of elementary school (2-4 grades), I'm interacting with an age group that is still figuring out how adults interpret gender boundaries. It's fascinating.

I don't think my coworkers realize it, but I get "Are you a boy or a girl?" a lot, especially when there are a lot of new students. I really strongly feel that a simple answer doesn't do the question itself justice, and doesn't fully represent who I am. I aim for addressing gender honestly and casually when the subject comes up. Through my interactions, I want to teach kids that the answers to gender questions aren't cut-and-dried, and also that gender questions are okay to ask!

I've had many good experiences. There was the second-grader who thought I was a boy for weeks, and didn't seem bothered to learn that most people assume I'm a girl. There was the new third-grader, who called me 'he' when talking to her friend. Her friend 'tattled', and it was pretty wonderful watching this friend realize that I wasn't even the least bit offended. Of course, there was also the third-grader who, when making a paper monster as group activity, was lamenting (loudly) the fact that their monster was a boy but it had long hair. I never managed to persuade him that a boy monster can have whatever kind of hair it wants.

One experience sticks out as particularly difficult: A second-grade boy had asked about my gender, and he said he thought I was a boy, which I told him was okay. A week or so later, when I was out of the room, he and another student asked my coworker (albeit probably not speaking with as much respect as they should have),

"Where'd that other dude go?" "Yeah, where'd he go?"

My coworker got very defensive on my behalf. Taken aback and offended, she asserted,

"You mean she? I don't think her parents would have given her the name they gave her if she was really a boy!"

I cringed inside when my coworker relayed the conversation to me later. I was worried that the boy was going to think I hadn't taken his question seriously, or worse, that I'd lied to him, or had been making fun of him the previous week.

All of these fears were quelled today. This boy came up to me, and asked again, as if it had never happened the first time:

-- Are you a boy or a girl?
-- Most people think I'm a girl. What do you think?
-- I think you're a boy.
-- That's okay!

-- And half girl.

Now if only everyone else in my life could be a little more like this second grader...


Lynne said...

I love this! And your face! Come back for a visit soon!

longfellowgirl said...

I love these kids. It's amazing how kids get it "right"! :)

elisaares said...

You are awesome.

My 4 YO nephew with the tiara fetish is totally coming to your school.

angela said...

So good you are working with children in such an open way. May u find support from other adults. Gently educate them too. I hope your co-worker hears abt your conversation w/ the 2nd grader.