Back to school is a notoriously tough season for us. It’s not because we have to wake up and get going earlier than we did all summer (which, yes, sucks). And, it’s not because our days (once again) become dominated by schedules, homework and packing lunches.
Back to school marks the annual peak in C.J.’s anxiety levels (which, in turn, makes me more anxious than usual, though I try not to show it, especially to C.J.). For C.J., it marks the start of weeks and months of self-editing and agonizing over every little decision.
Will he wear girl clothes to school? Will he use the bathroom or hold it all day? Will he be brave enough to carry the “girls” backpack and lunchbox he cherishes? Will he let his classmates see his true, colorful, quirky, fabulous, sparkly, sassy self?
Or, will he play it safe?
The start of first grade was the worst. He took baby steps (and sometimes no steps) toward being his authentic self and finally started sharing his gender nonconforming ways with his classmates and classroom a full three months into the nine-month school year. He didn’t feel truly accepted and comfortable until five months after that first bell rang.
It’s little things, like picking a Monster High lunchbox, but refusing to carry it – opting, instead, for a plain brown paper bag – until November and not wearing a headband to school until March. The days leading up to finally carrying the Monster High lunchbox and rocking the headband were filled with questions and false starts.
“Should I take my Monster High lunchbox tomorrow?…I’m going to do it…I’m going to take it….Do you think the kids will make fun of me?…Do you think anybody will bully me?…Maybe I’ll just wait until tomorrow…”
My heart breaks with each step in the deliberation process, as I let him make his own decisions while reminding him that his father and I are supportive of whatever he decides because we love him no matter what.
This August and into September, C.J. was getting excited, not anxious. I worried that his usual slow, two-week climb up Anxiety Mountain would, this year, be a race to the top in two days. I was bracing myself.
But, it never came.
Then, the night before school was to start, as we were packing backpacks, C.J. turned to me.
“Mom, I can’t decide.”
“When I start second grade tomorrow, should I start as a boy or a girl?”
I panicked, and not because my son might be my daughter, but because a social transition like he was suggesting takes at least more than the 12 hours he was giving me – eight of which we were supposed to be asleep.
“I think that’s up to you. That’s a question that only you can answer,” I said calmly while feeling anything but.
“But, what do you think? Just tell me!” he insisted.
“I think you should go as you. I like you.”
“So, I should go as a boy because I’m a boy? A boy who likes girl stuff?”
“If that’s who you are.”
“That’s who I am.”
After I got C.J. and his brother to bed, I watched reality television and ate four more chocolate chip cookies than I should have, in an attempt to soothe my aching heart. I worried that the next day — the first day of school — would be drenched in anxiety.
C.J. carefully laid out his outfit. Yes, it was decidedly more masculine than first day outfits from years past and much more so than the clothes he wore during the freedom of summer, but the decision wasn’t painful for him. He wore blue and purple plaid shorts and a polo shirt with a necktie printed on it because he thought it was “fancy but not too hot.”
He carried his pink backpack and pink rhinestone lunchbox without a second thought. We walked onto campus and were greeted by one “Hi C.J.!” after another. He smiled and waved and got a little shy.
He got in line and scoped out his new classmates. After three years at the same school, he knows more than half of them. And, more importantly, they know him.
By the third day of school, he had a wrist full of bracelets he’d beaded himself and orders from classmates who wanted a few of his one-of-a-kind creations on their wrist too.
Tomorrow marks the end of the first full week of school and I would never jinx us by saying this has been the best back to school ever, so I’ll just say that C.J. is loving second grade so far and his teacher read Matilda to the class and C.J. loves Matilda.