He’s at a middle school/high school combo that is super progressive and inclusive. Like, I don’t want to jinx us, but there couldn’t be a better school for him. Fingers crossed. Knock on wood. Throw some salt. Do whatever you need to do to make that claim stay true until he graduates from twelfth grade.
For the first time in eight years, I wasn’t a stressed out mess about C.J. starting school. I wasn’t frantically brushing up on anti-bullying laws, educating his new teacher about gender expansive youth and reassuring C.J. (with no substantiating evidence) that everything would be okay.
While we focus on his first year of middle school, here’s a look back at the quagmire that was sixth grade. (And if you want to read about the lowest point in fifth grade – it’s pretty freaking low – click here.)
Let me say, first, with absolute fierceness and conviction, that C.J.’s sixth grade teacher was ah-mazing. She was a glittery mama bear who made sure her nails were always on fleek so they wouldn’t be a distraction to C.J. She also graciously looked the other way when he wore clear mascara or a light dusting of highlighter to school – because makeup was expressly forbidden on campus.
C.J. walked onto campus his first day of sixth grade and his watchful, protective eyes spotted his fifth grade bullies right away.
“Ewww, gross, C.J. is back,” one of them said to the others. His chest tightened and any of his hopes for a totally fresh start were dashed. This is where I ask you, if you have a child, please teach them to be kind – and, if they can’t be kind, to be quiet.
His bullies had to be reminded that their behaviors weren’t tolerated in fifth grade and certainly wouldn’t be tolerated in sixth grade.
We eased into the new school year.
Then this happened.
For Picture Day, C.J. wore his favorite “Dragon Braids” hairstyle and his favorite (at the time) black and white checkered shirt. He snuck his rhinestone bowtie in his backpack to put on at picture time because he thought it would be a nice surprise for me to see him looking so fancy.
Something else he did to “surprise” me? He did his signature (at the time) pose. Duck lips and the flipped around peace sign. A true “Fall of 2018” classic.
He asked the photographer if he could pose. Much to his surprise she said yes. He posed and she took the picture. Then, he asked if she was going to take another picture without him posing. She said no. He figured he’d nailed it in one take and headed back to class. All was well, until the principal saw the photo.
His principal emailed me asking C.J. to retake his picture without posing. I relayed her request to C.J. and he asked if his picture would be omitted from the yearbook if he refused the retake. The answer was no, so his answer was no. He politely declined a reshoot, much to the principal’s displeasure.
His defense was:
- Nowhere on the information sent home about Picture Day did it say students couldn’t pose. (I’m sure that has changed, thanks to C.J., so if you attend the elementary school he attended, please check the updated Picture Day rules and restrictions.)
- He asked if he could pose and was told he could.
- He asked the photographer if she wanted to take a second photo and she said no.
- He felt confident that it was his most epic school photo ever.
His defense stood, in my court. Honestly, I think it’s the best school picture he’s taken. We typically don’t frame the boys’ school pictures, but this one earned a frame in an instant. I’ve also had people request to have it on a t-shirt, coffee mug, button, etc. The merchandising options are endless, really.
Imagine if every student was allowed to pose the way they wanted every year for their school picture. At the end of their academic career, with all their school photos side by side, you’d see a glorious evolution of the child and their personality. Their ages and stages. Their styles and smiles. A yearbook full of self-posed school pictures is one I wouldn’t mind paying $40 for.
The picture also showed C.J.’s planning and forethought.
“When yearbooks are handed out the last week of school, I want EVERYONE to
look at my picture and see me saying ‘peace out’,” he explained. That’s how he felt at the beginning of sixth grade. Imagine how he felt at the end.
It gets better (or worse depending on how you feel about the school picture). In the yearbook, on the left-hand page was the photo of every student in his class.
On the right-hand page, there was a class roster. Beside each student’s name was their favorite sixth grade memory.
Raven: My favorite sixth grade memory was the book fair!
Kai: My favorite sixth grade memory was sixth grade camp!
C.J.: My favorite sixth grade memory was taking my yearbook photo.
Peace out, indeed.
After Picture Day came something I’d been dreading since CJ started preschool: Sixth Grade Science Camp.
Here are a few things CJ isn’t particularly fond of:
- Being segregated based on sex and/or gender
- Sleeping in a room full of boys
- Using a communal boys bathroom
Sixth Grade Science Camp has all of those things.
C.J. agonized over whether or not he should go to camp. His FOMO was fighting with his feeling that he’d be safer if he skipped it. I talked to his teacher and principal. At camp – just like at school and in accordance with state law – C.J. would be assigned to a cabin and bathroom based on his gender identity. He’d be in a boys cabin even though he’d feel more comfortable in a girls cabin.
I called the camp to tell them about C.J. and ask what (if anything) they’d done for campers like him in the past. I didn’t expect much and was pleasantly surprised. Reminder to self: Don’t always approach interactions expecting the worst.
The camp explained that they’ve had their fair share of gender creative campers and they have a whole protocol in place. Their deepest desire is for every camper to have the best camp experience. The camper could sleep in whatever cabin they felt most comfortable. Out on the trails during the day, the camper could use the restrooms before or after everyone else to feel a sense of privacy and safety. Aside from sleeping and toileting, all other activities were done as a large group with all students together, regardless of their sex or gender identity.
“That’s great!,” I said. “He just might decide to go to camp if he can sleep in a girls cabin!”
“Tell him we’d love to have him at camp and it’s sooooo much fun,” the camp said. “And if he does decide to sleep in a girls cabin, we’d just need to make sure all of the parents at your school are okay with it.”
FFS. I knew all of the parents at my school. I knew that ALL of them would NEVER be okay with my son snoozing in the same vicinity as a girl – even if the girl wasn’t their daughter.
I could understand if I needed to get approval from the parents/guardians of the girls who would be in his cabin, but get approval from ALL parents? That seemed excessive. And why would everyone need to know where my son was sleeping? I didn’t know (and didn’t care to know) where every other camper was sleeping.
We swapped Sixth Grade Science Camp for Sixth Grade New York City Camp. Our friends graciously hosted us at their house in the city. We went to the Natural History Museum, saw Wicked on Broadway, watched the New York City Marathon and took a tour of the city in a double decker bus. I don’t like to brag, but our version of sixth grade camp was much better than the school’s version.
After sixth grade camp, back at school, C.J. was using the boys bathroom during class time. He exited the bathroom and came face-to-face with the school’s custodian – a disgruntled looking man who had seen C.J. on campus for eight years in a row.
“You can’t go in there! You’re not a boy!” he barked at C.J.
“Yes I can. I’m a boy,” C.J. said.
“No you’re not,” the custodian said.
“I think I know my own gender,” C.J. replied.
“Well, you look like a lady!” the custodian amused.
If someone tells you their gender, accept it and move on. The end.
Imagine the length, firmness and multitude of emails I sent to the school and district after learning about the exchange. (Writing strongly worded emails is at the top of the list of things I’m good at.)
The custodian played gender police and toilet tyrant on a Friday and first thing Monday morning we were in the principal’s office collecting apologies. The principal and custodian both apologized to Matt and I in person. The principal apologized to C.J. in person. C.J. didn’t want the custodian to apologize in person, but requested his apology in writing.
The custodian went to his union and was advised by legal counsel not to put an apology in writing. The union representative also wanted us to know that he had started a “file” on us. To that I said, go right the hell ahead. Start your file and label it neatly, because I’d done the same and I’m good at saving receipts.
I wondered how a union established to protect adults working on a campus with children didn’t care about protecting children. I speak to large groups about gender creative children. Most of the large groups are healthcare providers or educators. I can’t remember ever having a member of the custodial staff in the room while speaking to educators. I never asked why. I do now. Every adult on campus should be better equipped to create a safe and inclusive environment for all students. We’ve now seen that the people who clean up the messes can also make a big mess.
We were finally nearing the end of the school year! Sixth grade graduation meant lots of end-of-the-year activities! And special-event dress codes that weren’t inclusive or in compliance with our state’s safe school laws!
If you are responsible for dress codes (like the one above from CJ’s school), keep in mind that the list of available clothing options must be the same for everyone regardless of gender identity and expression.
According to federal law, students have the right to dress and present in a way that is consistent with their gender identity, so long as they follow rules for how to dress that apply to ALL students. This includes how they dress at school every day as well as for dances, graduation and other school events.
It’s super easy. Watch. Instead of saying “Dress for students should be collared shirts and casual pants for boys, and dresses or nice pant suits for girls….If girls choose to wear spaghetti straps or strapless dresses, they must wear a sweater at all times.” Try something like this “”Dress for students should be collared shirts, casual pants, dresses or nice pant suits. If students choose to wear spaghetti straps or strapless dresses, they must wear a sweater at all times.”
See! It’s that easy! Our school made the change in less than 24 hours (probably while muttering that they’d be so happy to be done with us after graduation).
Also, think about it this way, the way the dress code was initially written, C.J. (unlike his female-identifying peers) could have worn a strapless dress and without a sweater. I gave him the option, but he doesn’t like his shoulders exposed.
Sixth grade graduation. Freaking finally. There was a ceremony and, then, Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out For the Summer” blared over the loudspeaker. Families were crying, so sad to say so-long to elementary school. Our family felt a weight lifting off our shoulders. Sweet summertime relief.
We walked off campus and C.J. declared, “Thank God that’s done!”
There were times we thought — without a doubt — that CJ wouldn’t finish elementary school in a traditional school setting.
He chose to stay at “his school.” A place where he was called a girl, he was called gay, he was made fun, boys in the bathroom tried to see his penis, he was stabbed with pens, pushed, kicked, tripped, told that if he was gone no one would notice, he had his lunch stolen (and smeared on him), the custodian told him he looked like a lady. The list goes on and on.
At times we thought elementary school would break C.J. He’s not broken. He’s tough as hell. He’s not a little kid anymore. He’s a strong, fierce and stunning soul.
So here we go. Middle school. Let’s do this. Peace out elementary school.
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I haven’t written in a while. Thanks to all of you who have checked on us to make sure we’re okay. We’re awesome! I accepted a full-time job and it’s made finding time to write longer form blog posts a bit of a challenge. I do manage a few posts a week on Instagram. Follow us there at @raisingmyrainbow and @cjduronoffical.