Non-Conforming: A Back to School Story

The first day of school is coming and now’s the time to make a budget and start gathering your resources for clothes, tuition, books and supplies. The race to summers end brings that other thing — the bit of creeping dread. Who will the teacher be? Will he or she be open-minded, understanding? What sort of questions will they ask? Will we get the right mix of classmates and parents? What issues will they bring up about going to the bathroom this time?

You see, I have a gender non-conforming second-grader, with luxurious long hair and a penchant to wear whatever the heck he wants. Some days, he’s in basketball shorts, a dinosaur tee and sparkly sandals. Other days, it’s a tutu, bright shirt and rainbow sneakers.

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There is no gender-identity confusion. He’ll tell anyone who asks or calls him a girl, “No, I’m a boy.” He’s solidly grounded in his identity.  He simply sees no reason for any clothing or accessory on any rack to belong to any gender. They’re bright, colorful and, to be true to his words, “They’re mine.”

The school year always begins with butterflies for us. We meet the new teacher, hope and pray we get at least some of the classmates from the previous year that already know the “clothing that is normal” around my kiddo. We begin preparing for what sort of education we need to have ready for the people now involved in his daily life.

Every new school year brings changes and challenges — new teachers, a new counselor, a new nurse, a new janitor. There’s always at least one incident of a kid or adult trying to point him to the girls’ restroom or reporting a girl in the boys’ restroom.  There’s always playground incidents and kids who don’t understand.

He usually handles these with aplomb. He gets that other kids don’t understand and tries really hard to just tell them, “No, these aren’t girls’ clothes. They’re my clothes. There’s no such thing as girl clothes. I just like them. They’re bright or sparkly or fun and comfortable. Why does it matter?”

They do get to him, and the anxiety returns, and the sadness takes away his shine. His … light. He is one of those people who lights up a room, just by being in it. He is everyone’s friend and charms his way into everyone’s good graces. (Even when he’s done something he knows he’s not supposed to.)

When these kids who don’t know, whose parents have taught them rigid gender roles,  while the parents themselves don’t understand how simply wrong they are, make fun of my son and refuse to play with him, he gets dimmer, anxious and sad.

These things started as early as pre-K. He had purple Chucks he wore almost every day and a Mohawk (that was almost never spiked at school) —  but had faded from a bright red to a lovely pink. He’d get bullied for liking girls’ things, but his teacher was amazing, and there were only nine students so she could step in immediately.

In kindergarten, we had 23 students in class and the bullying went unnoticed for much longer. It wasn’t until he was trying to get me to pick him up from school with obviously false illnesses that I could get him to tell me what was wrong. Once I did, we involved the teacher, the school counselor, the paras that work with them at recess and lunch. Within 2 weeks he was back to his bright smiles, happy face and running out the door to the bus.

We got to first grade and had a new teacher who just never… clicked. His classmates are almost all the friends from the previous year, so they were inclusive and understanding. There were inevitable problems with new staff, new kids on the bus and new kids on the playground. Plus, he was even more separate from his peers because he was doing advanced learning with other groups twice a day.

Now, we face second grade. It’s the first year he’ll be alone on the bus in the morning and in the school because Protective Big Sister has moved into middle school. It’s also the first year he’ll be fully in the gifted program with a new coordinator and a new teacher. We have no idea who his classmates will be, and we’re desperately hoping he is not assigned to a particular teacher. This teacher is known to be, um, close-minded, and the request has been put in ahead of time to avoid this teacher. I know it was heard and well received, but I do not know for sure if it was written down and remembered.

How do we cope? We do a lot of talking, a lot of prep. As a family, we talk over our nerves and plan out first-day outfits. We want both kids to be very happy and excited about the first day of school. I fight and champion to keep my children’s love of learning as alive as I possibly can. (Especially when you consider the state of Kansas schools.) If that means talking down the anxiety and talking up the pink kitten leggings, or Facebook stalking last year’s second-grade parents and quizzing them about the assigned teacher, I am more than happy to do so.

We found The Center this spring as a family and got involved with Kids Connect. I can say that meeting other children who are just as individual and confident as he is gave him a definite boost in confidence at school when dealing with the (sometimes accidental) bullies. It has given Protective Big Sister a broader view of the world and other siblings to connect with who are advocates for their sibling. It’s also given my husband and I other parents to talk to, who understand instantly what we’re talking about when we bring up a subject and who are another resource when we need it.

My job as a parent is to advocate for my child, putting his happiness, ability to learn and his right to feel safe and confident in his individuality first. He will not be defeated by these dread-filled butterflies.

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We will catch them together and feed them glitter.