Give Students Language

Teaching is all about relationships, and relationships with students are crucial, even once they have moved on from your classroom. I am delighted that the latest ‘Student Voice’ guest blog post comes from a student who I last had in class 3 years ago. We have kept in touch as she has transitioned from high school to college while also dealing with another, more significant transition. This week’s guest writer is Nicole Collins.

Halfway through my sophomore year, I hit a rut.

At that point, I was neck-deep in the process of recognizing my transgender female identity. It really began for me freshman year, looking at myself in the mirror and longing for hair that would fall to my shoulders, beautiful floral dresses, and a different name. (I liked Nicole the best. It made me incredibly euphoric and wistful thinking of people calling me that name and using she/her/hers pronouns.)

But I knew that could never happen.

Then, I was in a toxic relationship that was almost shattered by my coming out as bisexual. I’d come out as such in an effort to soften the blow of coming out as transgender—but my girlfriend at the time took it badly. She claimed it threatened the fidelity of the relationship and that it was “unnatural”; fake and that I was just confused.

“I don’t think bisexual exists,” she said. “You’re either gay or you’re not.”

I don’t mean to imply that comment is a terrible thing that impacted me; it was the verbal abuse that did it. Endless conversations and arguments and threats led me to vow to myself to never come out to anybody again. I kept it a secret—except for telling one friend, who was supportive about it, which led me to tell my then-girlfriend.

I was shoved into the closet and didn’t wish, anymore, to leave.

Until I soon after moved across the country from Winnetka, Illinois to Brookline, Massachusetts. I didn’t know the town—and I was wary. I stuck to my vow to keep my gender identity a secret.

But one day early in the school year, I was speed-walking to catch the train home when I noticed a rainbow flag, a sign reading “Gender Sexuality Alliance,” and a group of people in a room. On a whim, I decided to enter; I was miserable the beginning of my time at Brookline High School. I didn’t know anybody, so I was desperate for friends; I trusted they would at least keep it a secret.

And they did. I came out—secretly—as bisexual (cushioning again) and they were more than supportive. They heard my story and they understood. They encouraged discussion and conversation. They offered a soft support system for me to sink into—in which I could become comfortable.

Many of the conversations concerned gender identity. And Mr. Milne’s health class kept coming to me like a vision.

Gender not being binary, transgender people and how identity works. That kind of stuff. I knew more about identity—both for the conversations and myself, especially myself—and I had the vocabulary to tease it out of the darkness, help me fully realize my identity.

Mr. Milne’s health class got me out of the rut in my sophomore year. Amid the toxicity of the relationship, my own confusion about my identity, and other people’s perception of me, the class supplied me new, immensely helpful vocabulary and wherewithal to recognize and embrace my identity.

I’d never heard most of these terms before. But they gave me hope. I was and am a woman and the class helped convince me so.

It’s helped me immensely throughout my life since then: wearing a dress for the first time; coming out as transgender to close friends; and coming out as transgender to my school in a speech on our designated LGBTQ recognition day.

These sorts of curricula are immensely important. To my knowledge, what Mr. Milne taught wasn’t something all teachers did—and it pains me to think of all the closeted transgender and gender nonconforming students who never got their vocabulary because the teacher neglected to teach it.

I am incredibly grateful for that health class and I hope all teachers eventually include it in their curricula. It gave me language—a fundamental right not currently offered to most students across the country.

Give students language.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget the power of our teaching. Although I remember Nicole being a stellar student in class, she can remember the actual lessons that had an impact on her developing her voice. Never underestimate what we do on a daily basis when teaching our students – we are helping change lives.

If you are looking for further reading material, check out this months #slowchathealth Book of the Month: Raising Ryland: Our Story of Parenting a Transgender Child with No Strings Attached by Hillary Whittington

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