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In Which Everyone Gets To Learn A Little Something

, , , , , , , , | Learning | May 3, 2022

As a first-grade teacher, I’ve been lucky enough to teach a number of great kids I have very fond memories of, but there is one child that sticks out as memorable even compared to all the other great kids. He was a sweet child with strong empathy and caring for his classmates, he rarely got in trouble, and while not my best student, he always did decently well in classwork.

I first became aware of one of his unique aspects early in the year when his mother “confessed” to me her confusion about what to do with her son. She was a single mother and had always struggled with money, meaning that her son had to settle for his older sister’s hand-me-downs for most of his young life. However, she had been proud that she had gotten a slightly better paying job recently and so could afford to take her son shopping for his own clothes to start his first year of school with.

The only problem was that her son didn’t like any of the options they looked at in the store and ended up hating everything they bought. In fact, he actually pled with his mother to go back to wearing his sister’s hand-me-down clothes. It seemed he liked the “girly” clothes, the pink and unicorns, and all the stuff you couldn’t find in the boys’ section of the local department store.

His mom didn’t know what to do about this. She worried that she had somehow damaged her son by making him wear girl clothes for his young childhood or that growing up in a house of girls without a male role model had prevented him from properly growing into a boy. I immediately assured her that neither of those things she mentioned was a problem or had harmed her son and that there was nothing wrong with her son having unusual preferences in clothes. I told her she should focus on being understanding when talking to her son about his preferences and finding a compromise that both were comfortable with rather than acting as if his not liking his “boy” clothes meant there was something wrong with him.

Since the mother seemed really concerned about her son’s lack of a male role model in his life, I also recommended that she look into signing him up as a “little” with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, which our school had a close working relationship with. She did, and eventually, he was assigned a big brother, a young adult still in college. Though in this case, this was for in-school visits, the big brother would come to take my student every Wednesday during the lunch and recess hour and spend time with him, but they were supposed to limit the contact to school hours rather than the larger commitment of a traditional big brother relationship. The student’s big brother was great, very much loved by my student, and even popular with the other kids in the class due to his often organizing larger games for kids to play with him and his little brother during recess.

As the year went on, I noticed my student’s mother becoming more comfortable with supporting her son’s clothing choices. Originally, he would come to class wearing what I’d call gender-neutral clothing, but over time, I saw more and more examples of clothes that leaned more toward feminine.

This all came to a head when I got an email from his mom saying that her son had been pleading for permission to wear a dress to school, and she had finally relented and decided to allow him on the upcoming Monday. She was clearly worried about his being bullied, and I promised I’d do my best to keep an eye on him that Monday.

When he first walked into class, escorted there by his mother who had insisted on driving him to school that day just to ensure he was okay, he was clearly excited to be wearing his bright pink dress. I made a point to tell him I thought he looked great and he beamed up at me happily.

The other kids in the class had a number of questions about his choice of clothing, of course, and sometimes these questions were as insensitive as one would expect for children too young to understand tact. Many asked why he was wearing girl clothing. One kid even guessed he was being punished by his mom for something. However, for all their lack of tact, one great thing about kids that young is that they aren’t as committed to all the stereotypes that adults take for granted and are more open to new concepts. While many of the kids were confused about his dress, most didn’t seem angry or hostile over it.

Unfortunately, not all the students were as understanding and, despite my best efforts, he got a few mean comments about his clothes. By lunchtime, his enthusiasm about his dress had clearly waned a bit.

Just as I was wrapping up my lesson in preparation for lunchtime, I heard the familiar game of phone tag that came from kids near the door noticing my student’s Big Brother waiting outside and passing the word down the line to where the student sat. I was a little confused since this wasn’t the right day for his visit, but I still gave my student the usual wave to say he could go to his big brother. I hadn’t looked out the door, though, and so I was a little surprised when I heard my student’s excited exclamation that his big brother was wearing a dress.

Sure enough, the brother was indeed wearing a dress, one that was clearly too small for him and most likely hastily borrowed from a friend, but a dress nonetheless. He declared that he had heard that my student was going to be coming in with a dress and, “[Student] shouldn’t be the only one that gets to be pretty.”

During recess, the big brother also got many questions from my students about his dress. He answered only that he wore it because he liked to be pretty and challenged any students who implied there was something wrong with that to explain why he shouldn’t get to wear something that made him happy. By the end of recess, my student had rediscovered his earlier enthusiasm from the morning, and now, if challenged about his dress, he proudly declared that if his big brother liked wearing a dress, then there was nothing wrong with it.

From that day forward, the big brother usually wore a dress when he came in to get his little brother. He ended up getting two dresses which he clearly rotated between. He confessed to me in private that he actually disliked dresses, mostly complaining that his legs were always too cold, but if wearing a dress was what it took to make his little brother comfortable, then he would keep doing it.

My student didn’t always get to wear a dress. He told me his older sister didn’t often wear dresses, so he didn’t have many hand-me-down dresses to pick from; however, he always wore one on Wednesdays when his big brother came. And by the end of the year, the students all took it for granted that this one student wore dresses on occasion and treated him perfectly normally despite that fact. Years later, I’d still occasionally spot this student in the hallways of our school proudly wearing a dress while chatting with friends.

I’m sure some of you are wondering about his gender, and I promise all three of us (me, his mother, and his big brother) did ask him about it. He didn’t say he felt like a girl, but he also wasn’t willing to definitively say he was a boy, either. I don’t think he had fully figured out what he was yet. Our best guess was that he was a boy who simply preferred to wear dresses and pink things, though I wouldn’t be overly shocked if that changed as he grew older. I lost touch with his mom after he graduated from my class so I don’t know what he ultimately identified as, but I know that whatever it was, he had people in his life that loved him and would support him regardless.

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