Transgender Teens

New Challenges for Teachers in a New World

10/07/2019  |  Chicken Soup for the Soul
Column - Soup#39;s On!
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I want to talk about a whole new challenge for teachers: making sure they handle transgender students with sensitivity and understanding. According to a CDC study that was released in January 2019, nearly two percent of high school students identify as transgender, and 35 percent of these trans students have attempted suicide in the past year. 

Transgender students face higher rates of bullying, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts than their nontransgender peers. And many of them are facing issues at home as well as in school.

Transgender students face higher rates of bullying, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts than their nontransgender peers. And many of them are facing issues at home as well as in school.

How does an educator provide a supportive environment for such a teen? And by the way, this is happening more and more among preteens as well, so even at the elementary and middle school level educators are facing this challenge.

The stories that we receive from our writers usually reflect what’s going on in their current lives so I was not surprised that we received more than one story from an educator about a transgender student when we collected stories for Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers. One such educator was Ilana Long, who had been an English teacher for more than 20 years when she was asked by her principal to do something called “Advisory.” It was her least favorite part of the day, because she didn’t know how to do it — how was she supposed to counsel a group of 14-year-olds about their emotional issues?

Nevertheless, every Friday afternoon, Ilana sat on the carpet in a circle with her students and she listened as the kids shared complaints about too much homework and sibling rivalries and the other things you would expect from a group of teenagers.

But then, one day, Hannah raised her hand. “I have something important I want to say.” She blew her bangs out of her eyes. She was dressed in oversized jeans and a flannel shirt and she had a close-cropped haircut.

Hannah was usually shy about speaking out in the group, so everyone paid close attention. Her next words didn’t seem to surprise her classmates as much as they surprised Ilana. She said, “Most of you know me as Hannah, but I’m asking you not to call me that anymore. That is not my name.”

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

Now Ilana felt really unqualified to lead this group.

“I am a boy,” the newly minted 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.”

Ilana wondered if the other students would start snickering, but they were all 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. Not even Ilana, who as the teacher was supposed to say something.

Finally, the boy sitting next to Henry put an arm on his friend’s shoulder. “I always knew it,” he said.

Marcus, the toughest kid in the 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.

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 who seemed to have the hardest time processing the information. Ilana felt terrible about some of the mistakes she had made as Henry’s teacher and all of the clues she had overlooked.

For example, Ilana realized there was a reason why this student kept writing his last name only on his papers. It was because that student formerly named Hannah didn’t want to identify by that name.

How many times had Ilana pitted the “boys against the girls” in an academic competition, and placed Henry at a table with the other girls, not realizing that was agony for that student?

And Ilana felt terrible about something that had happened two years earlier when she was directing the children in “The Sound of Music.” Henry, then Hannah, had asked if she could wear pants, not a dress. But Ilana had responded firmly that the show was set in the 1930s and that all the girls had to wear dresses. Girls didn’t wear pants in the 1930s.

Henry, then Hannah, had worn that dress in the play, looking horribly uncomfortable. Now Ilana felt awful about that. She never meant to make a boy wear a dress in the school play, but she didn’t know that the child who was officially a girl felt like she was really a boy.

As a longtime teacher, Ilana has had to learn to operate an interactive whiteboard and grade lessons online. But this is the biggest change of all. Now she has some clues as to how to handle this, and how to be sensitive to what underlies some behaviors that she never understood before.

I was talking about this issue today with a friend who has a six-year-old granddaughter who had a classmate named Allison. Allison often wore boy’s clothing to kindergarten. At the end of the last school year, Allison announced that when first grade started in the fall she would be coming back as a boy named Skip. Her classmates accepted that and welcomed Skip this fall. The kids these days are really getting it. It’s up to the adults now to get in line.

My daughter is having her first child in a couple of months and everyone keeps asking me what she’s having. I tell them that she and her husband have decided to be surprised, so I’ll let them know in a couple of months. And then I add, “But ask me again in 16 years!”

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