75: A Hawk in a Pigeonhole

75: A Hawk in a Pigeonhole

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

A Hawk in a Pigeonhole

Preconceived notions are the locks on the door to wisdom.

~Merry Browne

“Advisory” was my least favorite part of the day. After more than twenty years as an English teacher, how did my principal expect me to suddenly get the hang of counseling a group of fourteen-year-olds about their emotional issues? I felt totally under-qualified. Nevertheless, every Friday afternoon, I sat on the carpet in a circle with my students and listened, arranging my face in an expression of concern and caring as the kids shared complaints about too much homework and sibling rivalries.

Hannah raised her hand. “I have something important I want to say.” She blew her bangs out of her eyes. Dressed in oversized jeans and a flannel shirt and sporting a close-cropped haircut, she was the epitome of grunge. Hannah was usually shy about speaking out in the group, so we all sat up and paid close attention to her soft voice. But I, for one, was totally unprepared for what she was about to say.

Her next words changed me, changed the way I relate to my students, and changed my perceptions of my world.

“Most of you know me as Hannah, but I’m asking you not to call me that anymore. That is not my name.” I furrowed my brow. What was going on here? It was a Friday, the last class period of the day. Parents were already lining up in their cars outside.

“My name is Henry. I would like you to call me that from now on.”

Blinking, I realized that “under-qualified” didn’t even skim the surface of how poorly equipped I was to understand and support this conversation.

“I am a boy,” Hannah — no, Henry — stated. “I have always felt like a boy, and now I want everyone to recognize me as a boy. I’ve never been comfortable being called a girl because I am not one. My parents support me, and I really hope you all will, too.”

I braced myself for snickering and whispered comments. But the circle of students was dead silent.

“This moment is something that I’ve been dreading for years, but also looking forward to. This moment is when I finally have the courage to tell you all who I really am. I’m proud of who I am. I’m proud to be Henry.”

Nobody spoke. I figured that as the teacher it was up to me to say something. I just couldn’t think of what. My mouth opened and closed uselessly. Finally, the guy sitting next to Henry put an arm on his friend’s shoulder. “I always knew it,” he said.

Marcus, the toughest kid in eighth grade, had a funny look on his face. It almost looked like he was tearing up. He uncrossed his arms and began to applaud, and the others joined in.

Henry beamed. At fourteen, this kid had accomplished something in a few short sentences that most adults would never be brave enough to manage.

The students took Henry’s declaration in stride. They patted Henry on the back, told him “good job,” and wished him a relaxing weekend. His friends hugged him and told him they were proud, and the other kids looked on with a detached tolerance.

It was the adults, like me, who seemed to have the hardest time processing the information. How could Henry have suffered like that, living his whole life as a sham, and how could we possibly help him?

In time, I managed to remember to use “him” and “he” each time I spoke about Henry, but it was with growing discomfort that I looked back upon my mistakes of the past, or worse, my incapacity to see that a child who I taught every day was in conflict.

How many papers had I received already from that student where he had typed only his last name, ashamed to write down the female name he no longer wanted? How many times had I pitted the “boys against the girls” in an academic competition, and placed him at a table with a gender with which he did not identify?

I remember Henry had come to me two years earlier. He was playing one of the children in the musical I was directing, The Sound of Music. Henry, then Hannah, had asked me, “Would it be possible for me to wear pants? I’m not comfortable in a dress.”

“Absolutely not,” I answered immediately. “The show is set in the 1930s. All the girls are supposed to wear dresses.”

Henry wore pants at the dress rehearsal. The next day, I brought in a dress for him and told him to wear it. I was frustrated during the performance. Every time I looked over at Henry, there he was in his dress, looking like he’d been socked in the face with a dead fish. He was miserable.

Henry’s honesty taught me a lesson. True, I’ve had to learn a lot of newfangled concepts in my twenty-some years of teaching, like how to work an interactive whiteboard and grade lessons online. But most importantly, one student’s bravery taught me the most progressive of lessons and gave me the opportunity to learn acceptance.

As teachers, we need to put aside our preconceived notions and stop putting students in boxes that we’ve created. It took a courageous fourteen-year-old for me to recognize that I was the one who was living the sham by deciding who was who, and contributing to the blind categorization of kids rather than admiring each individual for who she, or he, truly is.

Later, after I learned the truth, I apologized to Henry for forcing him into that dress and making him sing “Climb Every Mountain” in operatic falsetto. He shrugged. “That’s okay. You didn’t know.” True. But today, because of Henry, I know better.

~Ilana Long

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