Monday, September 23, 2013

Kids are Alright VI - Be Gone and Live

I woke up the other morning to the sound of the school bus that passes by my house at 6:40 every school day.  It startled me out my sleep as it was the first day of school and I hadn’t heard the hum of that diesel engine with its large rubber tires hurtling down my country road all summer.  For years I used to gauge my mornings by the flash of yellow passing by my house, knowing I should be grabbing my lunch bag and coffee by that then to make it school on time, but not that morning.

Classroom Memories - Photo Gia Drew
Nearly two years have passed since I returned to school, after another summer break, now as Ms Drew instead of Mr. Drew.  While I survived the initial that back-to-school experience, including the anxiety of meeting new students and reintroducing myself to my colleagues, new challenges appeared out of nowhere.  I brushed aside the occasional slur hurled in my direction from teenagers. They were just loud enough for me to hear, but not clear enough for me to identify and confront them.  I imagine teachers and parents had their own opinions too, but most kept them to themselves.

Back to School Night for my student’s parents was my next test. I had hoped that my students had given their parents a little heads-up concerning my gender transition, but there are no guarantees from a sixteen year old.  As far as I knew the district and my administration took no steps to inform or educate the community about my gender transition.  It was all up to me.  The night started at six with a short speech from the principal and then parents followed their child’s schedule. Every twenty minutes I welcomed a new group of parents to my classroom and gave a brief introduction to the class and answered questions. While there were many new faces, there were also parents I’ve known for a few years.  I don’t know which group made more nervous, either way, I was anxious all night long, but with my sense of humor still intact, I made it.

As the school year marched on I began to confront some of my anxieties.  While I was comfortable in my own wing of the school, it took a lot more energy to venture to other areas without my circle of supportive colleagues within earshot.  One of the most dreaded tasks that high school teachers detest is lunch duty, and I was no different.  That fall I somehow made it work.  I even think it was a good way to introduce Ms Drew to the entire school population without too much fuss, and establish my some credibility.  If a trans teacher can handle a cafeteria filled with 300 students, what can’t she do?

This was my nineteenth year in the classroom as a teacher and thirty-eighth, combined with my years as a student.  With fall well underway much of my job became business as usual, or so I thought. Cracks started to appear in my progress as one of the first out trans teachers in Maine.  I was slightly oblivious that I swimming in uncharted waters. Transitioning on the job as a public school teacher was very new for our little state, and while we claim to be very accepting of the LGBT community, putting that into practice takes time and people to take risks.  I guess I was naive and expected more people, especially my colleagues and administrators to be worldly on my identity and supportive of what I was going through.  While there were many, and I hold them dear in my heart, others made my life more difficult than it already was, specifically, the new leadership.  I do understand it takes people time to get a new name correct, but by November and after repeated use of my previous name in front of colleagues and students, I had enough. So in private, I respectfully corrected her and hoped it was for the last time. 

In my eighteen prior years as a teacher I’ve had twelve principals, some better than other, but I usually had a decent rapport with all of them.  In that time I had been verbally corrected or questioned about my behavior and/or teaching methods only twice, and every teacher evaluation had been exemplary. As a veteran educator, I’m very proud of those facts. But within my first six months teaching as a transgender woman, I was questioned, reprimanded, or disciplined at least four times.  Was it me, had I changed that much, or was the system working against me?  I also learned through friends there was a group of parents who had organized in opposition to me remaining as a teacher in their school district.  Mysteriously several students were dropped from my roster that fall with no explanation; I didn’t need any clarification.

As the darkness of winter approached so did the gloom of potential budget cuts.  Our state was recovering very slowly from the recession and our school’s enrollment was dropping.   For the previous two years, I had survived proposed reductions to the arts in the district. Each year I had the support from numerous board members, my union, administrators, and parents.  With the
Winter's Evening at School - Photo Gia Drew
impending news of cutbacks in the air, and working under an insensitive and new principal, my stress and anxiety levels started to rise.  In a conversation with a colleague, I shared my fears about losing my job, but also how I was struggling with people’s expectations for me as a woman.  It was challenging missing female life experiences of that go with my age, but also living with the hormones of a teenage girl.  It felt like I was cramming for an exam, trying to learn forty years of social nuances overnight.  She made it clear, that as a woman, I might be considered a “bitch” if didn’t bend to the patriarchal expectations of my gender.  The choice was mine.

During a department meeting sometime in late January or early February, our principal joined our group expressly to inform us that budget cuts for our department seemed imminent, and that an art position at our school would be reduced.  Without saying any names, we all knew it was going to be me.  That was the only time my principal spoke to me directly or indirectly about my position until she handed me my pink slip later that May.

For me I still had work to do.  There were five months left to teach and a season to coach.  I had been a track coach for twelve years, the last four as head coach at my high school.  As winter ended I knew I would be attending annual coaches meetings for spring sports.  While I had started my transition the year before, my changes were very subtle and I don’t know what the other coaches or athletes thought was going on.  I think some people thought I was going through a hipster midlife crisis.  The changes were more obvious now with a blonde wig, female attire, softer voice (I hoped),etc.; you get the picture.  The majority of track coaches around the state are men; some call it an old boys club.  I was very apprehensive about walking into the meeting, just as nervous as starting school.  Fortunately one of my assistant coaches was going to meet me there.   He was and is today, a very supportive person; in fact I had been his coach years earlier when he was a student.  While having him by my side calmed my nerves, I still had butterflies as we introduced ourselves to the group and participated in the meeting’s business.  I survived, and as we were leaving, one of the few female coaches came over to say hi.  We only see each other a few times a year, and I forget her name, but she said it was nice to see me and that I looked great.   I kind word can go a long way and it certainly made my day.

One moment from the season that stands out happened at an away meet.  I’ve been visiting this neighboring school for years, but this year was a little different.  While most of the spectators and athletes paid little attention to the trans coach, a small group of middle school students did and they started to follow me around the track.  As head coach I travel from event to event, checking-in with athletes, officials, and other coaches. I could tell they were curious, who wouldn’t be.  They were probably twelve years old and I would guess they’ve never seen a trans person before. We were in rural Maine after all.  Finally after following me into the bleachers and my team’s area, I turned to the crew of boys and asked them how they were doing.  A little shocked that I spoke to them, they became mysteriously quiet.  I asked them if they were on the middle school team.  They looked at each other then nodded they heads answering that they were.   I introduced myself; “I’m coach Drew, head coach for the visiting high school.”  Trying my best to be encouraging, I asked if they needed anything else? Nothing but silence as each of them looked to each other for help, “well, I’ve got to go, enjoy the meet,” and I walked away.

Spring passed by like a comet, each day faster and faster.  During a homeroom in mid May we sat around the table like we did four days a week for twenty minutes and shared a little of our lives with each other.  This group was close to me.  Most students stay in the same homeroom for their entire high school career. They’ve seen my transition up-close, day-in and day-out. But I’ve also witnessed their transitions too.  From the time they enter as freshman to the time the graduate, they’ve all changed in so many ways.  So I think for this group my transition wasn’t as big a deal, we were all changing together, one homeroom at a time. Anyway, the principal showed up that morning and asked to see me in the hall.  I had a feeling what this was about, but couldn’t bring myself to accept it.  In the hall I was handed a white envelope and the principal said a few words that at that moment carried little meaning. The night before the school budget was approved and with it, my job of nine years at this school was no more.  I returned to my class and shared the expected news with my students.  We sat in silence trying to understand what just happened.

Over the next few weeks as summer was quickly approaching I began applying for positions at other schools.  While I was hopeful at first; my expectations were soon dashed as I entered the conference room for my first interview and watched in horror as the faces of the committee members melted at the sight of a transgender woman standing in front of them.  While I was able to ignore their lack of professionalism and conduct a thought provoking and thorough interview, I knew I was dead in the water before it began and each interview from then on was the same.
My final day of school arrived.  It was Thursday June 21st.  Most last day’s of school are joyous occasions for both students and teachers alike.  While some students are conscientious about completing their exams, most rush through them, eager to be free from the confines of school.  Projects, folded poster boards, and notebooks fill the garbage cans that line the dark cavernous hallways filled with abandoned orange lockers, and students hurry themselves like cattle, pushing through the broken doors to the bright light and warmth of summer.  Teachers sit back and push the pile of papers they’re supposed to grade to the side of their desks and relish the tranquility for a moment, simultaneously exuberant and exhausted, like a runner collapsing after a marathon. 

But that Thursday was a far different day for me.  By then the seniors had finished school a week earlier and all that was left for me was a small photo II class with only four students.  They were good kids and worthy students but not the ones I had bonded with over the past few years.  With their exams completed, paper clipped together and stacked in a pile next to me, we sat and listen to the final announcements for the year.  I thanked them for being “great” students and for letting me be their teacher for the past nineteen weeks.  Inside I thought of all my students over the past nineteen years, two thousand bright, curious, anxious, smart, perplexing, sad, beautiful, and wondrous students. My eyes were wet as the bell rang for the last time. The students headed towards the door, excited to meet up with their friends in the parking lot and put school behind them for the summer.  I turned away, not able to deal with what was happening.  With my face in my hands, I started to cry.  A student halfway out the door back and hurried over to me.  She gave me a hug, “thank you Ms Drew,” then turned and was gone, forever.