Several long years ago – before I lived where I live now, before I’d very questionably attempted bangs for the first time, before I wondered if that one guy could possibly be worth it – the first day of a new semester arrived and, with it, three brand spanking new classes. I have long loved what I do for a living – I see it as spreading the slasher and possession film gospel to the masses – but I have never been able to make myself love the day when the Fall semester officially turns into the Spring semester and it’s probably because a freezing day in February feels nothing like the springtime and because what it all really means is that I have to learn the names of eighty-something new students just when I’d finally figured out which kid was Peter and which kid was Steven in one of the classes that is now no longer a part of my daily schedule.
Change is not my favorite constant in the world, but I can usually roll (or at least hop along) with the punches that come with things being different, but the Name Thing has always been an issue for me. Even when I’m writing fiction, I tend to use the same names over and over again. It’s not even that I love those names; I just can, for some reason, remember them – and isn’t that what’s most important? Okay, it’s totally not what’s most important, but at least it’s helpful because otherwise I end up naming every guy character I create Mike.
Anyway, back on that first day of the new semester, I heard the piercing sound of the bell that moves students from one location to the next like they are a herd of hard-of-hearing sheep and I got the copies of my syllabus together and walked to my classroom door so that I could greet and personally hand one to every kid who entered. I have long found that simple things like saying “Good morning!” to a kid as he or she enters your room can drastically change the entire climate of the space. That kid ends up feeling recognized. Both of you are seen as a person, not just as a teacher or a student. And after such pleasantries are exchanged, it would be very difficult for someone to toss a heavy desk in your direction after you patiently explain that part of the course will involve writing several analytical papers at the exact time they all collectively feel very done with all things high school.
That particular day, just as I was beginning to meet my new students, two girls I’d taught last semester arrived at my door with a much smaller kid shuffling along behind them. These girls were seniors, good students both, and they had been a couple for over a year. Their relationship was in fact so much more solid than those of the guys and girls around them that they were voted Best Couple in the school yearbook. But on that first day of the new semester, they were not at my door to say hello or to ask what they should wear for their yearbook photo. They were there on a mission.
“Can we talk to you for a second?” one of the girls – the one with the bright pink hair – asked. Before I could even answer her, she kind of took my elbow and pulled me towards them.
“Wait one quick second,” I told them and I stuck my head into my classroom and locked eyes with a kid I’d just met at the door and asked him if he would do me a favor and hand a syllabus to every person that walked in and he smiled and said, “No problem.”
So instead of meeting my new students in the manner in which I always did on the first day of class, I found myself being pulled towards an alcove in the hallway and for the first time I really looked at the other kid standing with the girls.
“This is Ryan,” the girl with the very black hair told me, “and he’s in your class for this semester.”
“Hi, Ryan,” I said with a smile, but inside I was a little bit confused because he looked very small and very young and I only teach seniors. “What grade are you in?"
“Ninth,” he said quietly.
“How are you taking my class as a ninth grader?” I asked him – and I already started to worry if the clip of a woman being destroyed by shards of glass in the Italian horror film Suspiriawould have to be eliminated from my course because a child was apparently being enrolled in my class.
“My guidance counselor said you would make an exception because I’m very interested in Film,” he explained.
“I’ll take that as an answer,” I told him cheerfully, having found out long ago that interest and aptitude often matter far more than age. “Do your parents know you’re taking a class that’s typically for older kids?”
“They’re fine with it,” he said. “But why I wanted to talk to you before class is, um, I’m transgender. On the attendance list, I’m listed as Sara but I want to be called Ryan.”
“Okay,” I said, and I made a note in my head that I had better remember this kid’s name and not fuck up and call him Sara because beckoning some strange teacher out of her classroom and into a corner of a hallway to announce a conflict in identity should be the most awkward this kid should ever have to feel while in my presence.
I thanked the older girls who had made the choice to act as Ryan’s support system for bringing him my way and then I kind of pushed him towards the front door of my classroom and told him to find a seat. A few minutes later, when I finally walked into the room to meet the kids I’d be with until June, I was not even a little bit surprised to see that Ryan was sitting near the front of the room at the left side of the horseshoe shape in which my desks are arranged. I’d actually expected that – he wanted to be close to what made him feel comfortable.
I had Ryan during the last period of the day and he liked to stay after class sometimes to chat. There were days when he wanted to talk about a clip I’d just shown and sometimes he asked me if I’d seen a certain movie and then there were days when he just clearly wanted to talk. He was incredibly bright and the kind of student who did all of his work in a manner that was often above and beyond what was even required, but his academic record was not his most paramount issue during his ninth grade year. Finally embracing what he saw as his true identity trumped everything.
He’d let me ask him questions:
How do your parents feel about you being transgender?
Was there ever a time you embraced being born female?
What are the next steps you hope to take?
What kind of reaction have you received from other students?
Ryan was very open, very willing to share an experience that I tried very hard to understand. Feeling compassion came easily; I was watching a kid struggle – something I’d seen a lot of in my time as a teacher – but he was struggling with something I’d not yet been confronted with and I simultaneously wanted to be a safe person for him to speak with and to learn more about the struggle taking place within the kid sitting before me.
As for the questions I posed, I learned that his mother was supportive and his father was having a tougher time seeing his child transition into being male. Ryan told me he had never felt comfortable being a girl and that he hoped to eventually live his entire life as a man. And as for how the students reacted, for the most part, they either ignored him or were supportive.
I’m not sure the peer reaction Ryan received in what I’m guessing were some of the most heady days of his life would have happened at too many other high schools, though I hope I’m incorrect in thinking such a thing. But the school where I teach seeks to be accepting of students and their lifestyles as much as possible and does a lot to try to create an environment of security and comfort. We’ve had a Gay-Straight Alliance club for years. We have trained Peer Support students adept at helping to moderate issues between kids who are having difficulty coming to a resolution on their own. We encourage tolerance from both the teachers and the students and I can say with certainty that, while there are definitely a few assholes, most of the teachers want very much for their students to be happy and mentally settled as it’s beyond obvious that nothing can really be achieved when a kid is in a constant state of spinning terror.
While Ryan was in school, accommodations were made so he could use the bathroom in the Nurse’s Office so he wouldn’t have a problem walking into the boy’s bathroom. Every teacher I came across called him “Ryan.” But one day I was absent unexpectedly due to the powerful germs my students sometimes insist on bringing into my classroom and then breathing across my desks, and the next day – after my temperature broke – I was back in school and Ryan insisted on speaking with me immediately.
“The substitute called for ‘Sara’ and I didn’t respond so I’m going to get marked cutting,” he told me in a rush and he was a ninth grader who didn’t do things like cut class and he was very upset about the entire thing and I felt like maybe he was angry with me for putting him into a position that must have rocked him in the moment.
“I’ll clear your cut,” I told him. That part was easy. But the other issue – the name issue – would be one that involved some complications.
“This is the kind of thing that will happen to you every single time one of your teachers is absent,” I explained to him. “The subs are given the computer printouts of attendance lists, and you are listed as ‘Sara.’ You need your parents to contact Guidance and have it officially changed or you need to realize that you can privately explain to subs after class why you didn’t raise your hand and advocate for yourself.”
Ryan wasn’t sure that both parents would be on board with the official name change, and I’m pretty sure that for the remainder of the year he never raised his hand when “Sara” was bellowed during attendance. By the time he was a senior though, I think that his name was listed as Ryan on school records, his parents having come around to an issue that had to be very confusing for them.
As for my own interactions with Ryan, it was easy to like him because he was a sweet kid who worked hard and was very smart. Plus, how could I not root for a kid who was trying so hard to forge a path for himself that would surely be bumpy and dark and lacking the kind of GPS that helped me along my way? Still, I fucked up sometimes. I always called him Ryan, but sometimes I would slip when it came to pronouns. I remember walking down the hallway and coming across the girls who had first introduced me to Ryan and stopping to talk with them and then seeing Ryan on his phone, looking very upset.
“Is she okay?” I whispered to the girls – and they looked horrified because I’d just used the “s” word and I immediately felt like shit.
Ryan graduated a bunch of years ago now. We are Facebook friends and a few months ago he posted some lyrics from Estranged, perhaps the best Guns n’ Roses song ever recorded, and I sent him a brief message telling him how much I love that song. I was surprised to come across an article written about him a few years ago where he stated that he didn't feel his high school did as much as it could have to support him, though he did say some very lovely things about me and how I'd always been supportive of him. I'm not sure what else the school could have done, but I think those in charge are always open to suggestions that make sense. As for today, Ryan is living in San Francisco and he lives life as the man he believes strongly he was meant to be and, in the pictures he posts, he looks very happy.
I couldn’t help but think of Ryan this weekend as I watched the Bruce Jenner interview, and the whole thing kind of broke my heart. Now, I have no emotional tie whatsoever to Bruce Jenner. His Olympic victory took place before my time and I have never been a Wheaties fan and I refuse to watch the current Kardashian hideousness because I have some taste, so though I knew his name and his face, I didn’t have too many preconceived notions or expectations of what I wanted Bruce Jenner to be. Watching the interview, though, I found it kind of hard not to like him.
Jenner came off to me as scared, though perhaps what it is that terrifies him has begun to shift. Still, his voice shook alarmingly in the very start of that interview and I there’s no side of me that can blame him for being consumed by fear. We don’t live in a society that is consistently fueled by tolerance and this is a public figure whose children and stepchildren and ex-wife court media attention like other people court love. Even if he wanted his journey to be private, Jenner didn’t really have a prayer of that happening. I don’t follow that family intentionally, but even I have seen the articles over the years speculating about why Jenner was wearing nail polish and getting his Adam’s Apple shaved down in a procedure that strikes me as just slightly less painful than a raging bladder infection that lasts for twelve consecutive days. Reading that kind of press didn’t make me really react one way or the other, though I did wonder why he was going for the bright red nail polish that looks terrible against most skin tones. But as the reports began to appear with more regularity and were infused with more detail, I began to wonder if what these celebrity news outlets were reporting might be true.
It was true. US Weekly was correct, and if there is a God, may that be the only time I type such a sentence. But praying aside, Bruce Jenner has felt his entire life that his soul is that of a woman and he is on the journey of transforming into being a woman and living the life he’s always believed was his truth. During the interview, he articulated his path quite beautifully. He explained his first experiences with how he felt being in a woman’s dress and the steps he took to hide that secret from a world even after he signed a contract to allow cameras to invade every room of his home including the bathrooms. He explained that he didn’t want to live a lie anymore and that he was terrified of hurting his children, and his lips quivered as he spoke and his eyes filled with tears and I could not help but think that anyone who would attempt to make this person’s life even more difficult for sport or for ratings or due to some ingrained hatred should be sent to live forever in either the Marriage Boot Camp house with all of the Kardashians and not a single mirror or to some other hellish purgatory that might exist in a land where the humidity level is always hovering at one hundred percent. I also thought about my former student, and I was once again impressed that he knew he deserved a certain kind of life – an honest kind of life – and that he had the resolve to fight for it while he was still so young.
I have tried to imagine what it might be like to feel like I was born in the wrong body, and it’s a concept so abstract that I cannot do it justice. That part of my life has just been easy. Most of the time I love being a girl, which you can remind me of the next time I’m curled up in a fetal position because of cramps. Still, the awareness that I was born in the right body – albeit one without stomach muscles I can bounce a fucking quarter off of – has eliminated a problem I never considered could even be a problem. Because what Jenner’s interview made clear to me – and what my experience with Ryan so perfectly illustrated – was that the issue is about who you are at your core and learning to embrace that truth simply so you can exist as yourself.
A very smart and tolerant friend of mine doesn’t believe in the act of being transgender. Like the Loch Ness Monster, she thinks being transgender is a social construct that is promoted through questionable evidence, and I do not agree with her in the slightest about this, but I find what she says to be interesting if only because it illustrates just what this community is up against. There is disbelief and suspicion and confusion and intolerance. There is the fear and inhibition others have about asking the kinds of questions that might actually lead to clarification. There is the concern that the person exploring who he really is could fall off the flat surface of the world before finding out that the world is round and that he might one day be okay.
Many years ago, my best friend attended a wedding for a distant cousin. At the time, Becky was single and had been single for a very long time and she had recently entered a stage where she was beginning to feel almost embarrassed by her ubiquitous single status. At the wedding –which she attended without a date – an older gentleman whose mind had been riddled for years by Alzheimer’s sat near the dance floor, not completely aware of where he was or whose marriage was being celebrated or what his name even was, but when Becky walked by, he grabbed her hand and asked her if she was still single.
Yup, that he remembered.
When Becky called to tell me the story, I laughed for five minutes straight and it might have been one of those times when I squealed that I was laughing so hard that I was going to pee and then went sprinting towards my bathroom. Writing about it even now is making me laugh, because how insane is it that your identity – even if it’s temporary – can be boiled down to the one thing about your life that feels the most wrong?
Listening to Jenner speak candidly about all the years he tried to hide his true soul both from himself and from the world was heartbreaking and it made me remember that some things about who we are can be changed or tweaked and some things never can. But how we choose to react to what’s around us is something we often do have control over. It’s been quite different watching the journeys of Ryan and Bruce Jenner. I know Ryan. I met him when he was fifteen. I watched him grow confident over the passage of years. I now see periodic photographic evidence that he is living a life he is proud of, one he fully understands, one he might once have doubted was even possible. On the other hand, I do not know Bruce Jenner at all, but I wish him the continued courage he is now able to show to both himself and to the world and I hope that the world becomes a kinder place, one where all those Ryans out there – who today might feel misunderstood and afraid – will soon realize that there is, in fact, a little bit of hope.