Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Don't Be Quiet

By Irene Rising

At the start of my second year of grad school, after a number of pep talks from Sobha and encouragement from my classmates, I knew it was time for me to start teaching. Everything was falling into place: I was going to be a substitute teacher in the NYC DOE and work as a teaching assistant with an organization that brings teaching artists to schools in the five boroughs of New York. As a TA I was placed in two schools, one in the Bronx and one in Brooklyn. On my first day in Brooklyn, the lead teaching artist began the lesson to our 4th and 5th graders while I passed around materials. One child asked me a question as I approached him. Within two seconds of hearing my voice, his jaw dropped to the floor, he looked at his laughing friend next to him, pointed at me, and loudly exclaimed, “Oh my GOD… is that a MAN???” 

I’m a transgender woman. I’ve been living my truth as a woman publicly for over five years now, and I’m no stranger to prejudice and being ostracized for my identity. I battled with misgendering, microaggressions, and a range of harassment when my social transition began while working at one of NYC’s oldest steakhouses. I’ve had traumatic incidents on trains and was mugged (in no small part because of my visible transness). But more than anything, the daily microaggressions were what used to break me. What cisgender folks may not understand is that being misgendered, deadnamed, or called out for being trans, especially in public, is triggering. Every time. It reminds me that I am different; that I am not understandable and difficult to comprehend. It isolates me. And after years of becoming the woman I am today, where I am impacted by these microaggressions far less, I find myself faced with this 4th grader’s cruelty and I am broken once again. 

Without getting into my entire story, things are easier for me now regarding my social transition. I am fortunate enough to be generally seen and accepted as a woman; the visibility of my transness has gone down from my appearance alone. The thing that “reveals” that I am trans is my deeper voice. Before the pandemic, I took vocal feminization lessons and gained the skills to speak in ways that are more “feminine” (whatever that even means). But in the last couple of years, I realized that I actually like the voice I have. The training produced one that sounds phony, like someone else. So I have come to a place in my life where I don’t mind using my natural voice, even if that means that people question my gender when I speak. I had reached a healthy and solid acceptance of this. Until I started teaching last fall.

“Children just have no filter.”

“They just say what they see.”

“Don’t let it upset you, they’re just kids who don’t know better.”

These statements do not make me feel better. In fact, they validate the comments the child made. They bring me back to the trauma of my initial transition. My thoughts spiral: 

  • Even after all these years of transition, you are seen by everyone you encounter as trans (or, to put it as violently as the child, as “a man”).

  • If children have no filter but adults do, this means that every adult you meet knows you are trans but just doesn’t blurt it out at you. But on the inside, everyone has the same reaction as the kid.

  • Being trans distracts from anything else you have to offer. This kid wasn’t listening to your instructions as a teacher, he only cares about your gender.

These negative thoughts would be fueled further by the encounters I had with other children in the next few weeks. 

When I told my therapist about this encounter with the fourth grader, her advice was to “use that moment to educate [kids] about trans people. They can learn from you.”  I take issue with this. It is not my job to put myself in a potentially unsafe position by disclosing or confirming that I am, in fact, trans. Furthermore, I am not paid even a percentage of what it would require for me to go through the emotional labor of explaining what “trans” is to a classroom or school, and then face all the backlash that could come from parents and administration. The fact is, I am there to teach the material in the lesson plan. I am not there to go from classroom to classroom teaching “Trans 101” to every kid who triggers me. Does that sound like a helpful thing to do while actively triggered to you?

I could talk about every child last fall who asked me if I was “a boy or a girl” or a “man” or “why did I have a man’s voice” in front of the entire classroom, or about leaving a placement mid-day after sobbing in the principal’s office, but I am too exhausted. I wish I could conclude this by saying I have healed from these experiences and continue to teach kids, or that I found the way to do that and take care of my soul. But the truth is, I haven’t. I didn’t re-apply when my fall contract was up and I am not taking any sub jobs right now. I ultimately want to work with universities and teach adults in non-traditional settings, so working with kids is not necessarily required experience for my future practice.

By Irene Rising

What I can say is that I have deeply connected with teachers in this program who have taught me that cruelty from children is often targeted toward any adult, for any reason. I found genuine comfort in that sad sort of solidarity. I have grown closer to folks in my cohort who have given me tons of support as I struggled through those difficult experiences. I cherish these strong educators and see them all as invincible warriors. My dear friend and mentor Laura Bozzone recently told me, “You have so many important gifts to share with your voice. Don’t be quiet.”  I have carried her words very close to me since. 

To clarify, I still love teaching adults and am passionate about bringing the arts to students in a variety of settings. I am, of course, still a fierce advocate for arts programming for all youth, and am unwavering in my love for all children, even the ones that hurt me. I do not place anger on any specific child, but on our society that still does not understand and recognize trans people as just people. A trans teacher is in the classroom to teach, not to be interrogated about being trans. The same can be said for teachers who are subjected to racist, sexist, homophobic, fatphobic and xenophobic questioning from students and staff. 

With Laura’s words close to my chest, I quietly vow to myself to not be quiet anytime soon. I just may not pick up any sub shifts for the rest of the school year.

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