Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Kids are Alright

It was an early January morning in Maine and the temperature outside was somewhere below zero. I don’t think it matters all that much once the mercury drops below freezing; it was cold.  I was sitting in my warm car trying to find the courage to walk across the parking lot and go inside.  I had cafeteria duty at the high school where I was a teacher for eight years.  During my tenure at this school and at all the other schools where I taught in my 19 year career I worked outwardly as a man, but that was all about to change.


Like many trans people, I knew from an early age that my gender identity was different than my friends and family.  I had tried to explain my feminine feelings to my loving, yet bewildered parents 35 years ago, and got nowhere.  So my life continued onward, or should I say, my two lives.  I lived outwardly as a boy, man and eventually a husband, but on the inside as a girl and woman. By the fall of 2010, I was emotionally exhausted and came to the realization that I needed to be honest with myself, to save myself.  But those words are easier said, than the reality of showing up to work as a high school teacher and track coach, as a woman.  The first steps were the most frightening.  I slowly began to shed my male shell and persona, revealing the woman who was hiding underneath.  So, wearing a cute scarf and hat, pretty jacket, skinny jeans, painted nails, and boots with fur on top, I turned off my car and walked towards the cafeteria, across the snow covered high school parking lot with my head down.


Once inside the warm building I tried not to make eye contact with any students.  I dropped my bags and took off my coat and put them in the same location I’d had been leaving them all year. Of course, I thought they were all staring, but in reality they were probably too busy copying each other’s homework to notice me. I headed to the door on the other side of the cafeteria by the school lobby where I usually stand with a few other teachers.   I looked up, and said my good morning and apologized for being late.  I actually had been on time, but was sitting in my car for the last twenty minutes trying to find the courage to take those first steps.   There was a pause, as they scanned my appearance, but thankfully only replied, good morning.   

Across the lobby I noticed a student, noticing me. Oh shit, I thought. She had been in my photo class last semester, and I knew she could be a loose cannon.  She was a tough and attractive girl, who wielded a lot of power on campus.  She whispered something to her friend, and I thought, oh god what’s next, what was she saying?  She headed my way. Was she going to laugh, make fun and tease me in front of a hundred students and teachers?  All of a sudden she was in front of me, looking up and down.  She spoke quickly as the bell rung, and all I heard as she walked away was, “you look cute; I like your boots.” In that moment, that wonderful moment, on that frigid January morning, a lifetime of fear began to melt away.  The simple kind words of a student were the some of sweetest and most encouraging words I had ever heard.  

From that moment on my life changed forever.  Not that I instantly transitioned, but with my new found confidence I gradually began to reveal more of authentic self during that winter and spring.  Hats and scarves continued, along with a parade of jeans and cute tops.  Students and teachers just thought I was going through a hipster phase, not realizing what actually was happening.  With the changes and a stronger feeling of self worth, it was time to share my trans identity with a few trusted colleagues.  I rehearsed for weeks in my head what I would say, and finally just said it during lunch.  They, of course were wonderfully supportive. We had been working together for eight years, what was I so afraid of? 
name plate on classroom door
I continued to spread the word to other close co-workers, even the Principal.  He was touched and honored that I shared something so personal with him, and asked what he could do to help.  It’s too bad he took a job in Germany; I believe my life in that school would have been so much more positive had he stayed.   Knowing I had a small, yet supportive network of friends and colleagues made such a difference as the year was coming to a close. I eventually shared more information about my transgender identity with my students whose curiosity grew day by day.   They got it, but not all their parents.  Parent teacher nights are scary to begin with, and now they were terrifying.  But I survived.  

Looming over all of us at work was pending budget cuts, and my department and my job was on the line.  I was an art teacher, and we’re usually the area that gets cut first.  But that didn’t change my attitude.  I even started to wear a blonde wig under my knit hat, with a little hair showing.  I was virtually bald in the fall, but after wearing a hat for 4 months, it almost seemed natural.  In a conversation with my ninth grade class, I asked them for some advice.  For some reason I trusted their youthful opinions.  I was scheduled to go to a school board meeting with the hopes of preventing cuts to the arts, but also to save my job.  I was on the fence about how I should appear at the meeting, as Mr. or Ms. Their response was overwhelmingly in favor of Ms, which included blonde hair and all the rest.  Be true to yourself, was their emphatic message.  I took their advice and blind optimism to the meeting with me.  When the night was over, Ms Drew had saved her job, for the time being.  

-to be continued