“Mom!” Sam shouted, as he entered the kitchen, exhibiting an unusual sense of excitement. My normally serious, non-emotive child was demonstrating such enthusiasm about what he was about to share, that I had to stop what I was doing to fully appreciate the uncommon moment.
“The Chamber of Commerce is accepting nominations for their annual Teacher of the Year Award and I want to nominate Mrs. H,” he shared, the tone of his voice indicating his complete confidence in her deserving the honor.
Mrs. H. is Sam’s 10th grade English teacher and someone who, from day one, has tucked him under her wing and left him there for safe-keeping. A staunch supporter of students who are consistently considerate and conscientious (you know, the ones who are actually there to learn), the fact he wanted to nominate her came as no surprise to me knowing his high opinion of her. Professionally, she has taught him to not only appreciate but also enjoy English literature, a subject that up until this year did not hold his interest. But even more notable to our family was how she ran her classroom, setting expectations from the get-go for respect of one another and not wavering from this stance.
We had the occasion to experience her resolve to ensure a positive learning environment, when Sam faced some ugly behavior from a fellow classma te in her classroom – the type of abuse that he had grown accustomed to during his middle school years. But unlike what he encountered in the past, the swift action she took to address the incident left no room for interpretation.
It was a typical Thank-God-It’s-Friday morning in English Lit, the only difference being that there was a substitute teacher that day. As is usually the case, kids choose days when there are subs to exhibit some of their worst behavior. I think they naively rationalize that the story won’t get back to their regular teacher and even if it does, they can claim the report of indiscretion was grossly exaggerated. The substitute, not knowing Sam was transgender, approached his table of four students who were engaged in a book review and posed a question to Sam, using a male pronoun to address him. Before she could finish her thought, Tim (name changed to protect the guilty), a student who knew of Sam’s transition from female to male interrupted the sub by saying, “…you mean HER,” accentuating the word ‘her’ in a loud voice accompanied by a sneer.
Confused by his interjection, she tapped Sam on the shoulder and innocently replied, “…no, I am referring to this gentleman.”
Tim, who just couldn’t resist the opportunity to publically humiliate Sam continued, “… well then you mean HER,” even louder than the time before.
Physically sickened by the exchange, Sam sat in stunned silence, his face flush with embarrassment, as the teacher nervously focused her attention on another table, unsure how to handle the situation. Not quite satisfied with his performance, Tim lobbed his final verbal assault by whispering “…I’ll never use male pronouns for you.”
As Tim sat there smugly, welling with pride, Sam knew it had been a good day for him, a dual conquest if you will, not only demeaning Sam in front of the whole class for something he probably knew little to nothing about, but also frustrating the substitute teacher at the same time. Two birds one stone.
Now what most kids bank on in this type of situation is that the student they choose to harass won’t be strong enough to turn them in to the teacher. On this day however, Tim made the wrong assumption. Having grown tired of being mistreated, suffering too-many-to-count emotional wounds inflicted over the years by fellow classmates, Sam took matters into his own hands, and sent the following email to his teacher:
Hey Mrs. H!
I just wanted to touch base with you on something that happened in English today. I really don’t know why, but Tim won’t stop using female pronouns when referring to me. When he kept saying “she” today it was in front of our substitute teacher. I was horrified and he just kept saying it and correcting her. She was obviously confused, but moved on. After she left our table, the other kids turned away from the uncomfortable situation, and then Tim said under his breath that he refused to use male pronouns for me.
I just wanted to let you know what happened as I just want to be able to live my life now! Can’t everyone just move on? I will be gone on Monday, but I am kind of nervous for Tuesday in English. I might be confused or something, but I don’t think I look female?!?! Why does this continue??! Ugh.
Although it was a Friday night when Sam sent his email, he received a reply from Mrs. H. within just one hour:
First let me say I am SO GLAD that you emailed me about this. Second let me say I am SO SORRY this happened today. Third let me say that I’m SO MAD that Tim did this. This is completely unacceptable behavior that I absolutely will not tolerate.
I’m moving Tim (to another table) right away on Monday. I also intend to talk with him and report this to the assistant principal and his counselor. Under no circumstances should you have to feel nervous about attending class or be uncomfortable while you are in class. And just to be very clear, Sam, you don’t look female. You have a right to be who you are and to live your life without this kind of crap. I hope you know I’ll do everything in my power to prevent this from happening again. I’ve only known you for three weeks and I know you are a courageous, smart, hardworking, good kid. I’ll get right on this on Monday. I hope you have a great weekend and won’t waste another minute thinking about this or worrying about it.
As you can probably imagine, the way she handled the situation eased Sam’s fears. Her support made Sam realize that her classroom was a safe place to learn and that she would not tolerate anything less. At a time when harassment and bullying in schools is at an all time high across our nation, Mrs. H.’s actions exemplify the best of her profession, for she let it be known in no uncertain terms that she would not allow anyone to hamper any child’s right to learn.
In our hearts, she is already Teacher of the Year.
How can we vote for Mrs. H? I am serious. If there is a place where people vote, pleases let me know. All the talk/debate about how to handle bullying in schools gets old. We need more Mrs. H-like teachers/administrators who will have a zero tolerance policy and demand respect for ALL. I am so darn proud of Sam (and Mrs. H.)!
Love this post! I hope my children are lucky enough to have a Mrs. H in their lives someday!
Oh wow. This brought a tear to my eye. Go Mrs. H.!
I have a transgender teen too. He just started (literally, this morning) at a new high school after “unschooling” the past 6 months because he could not handle going back to his old high school, where kids (some of whom used to know him as a girl) would ask constantly, “Are you a boy or a girl?” He looks like a typical long-haired teenage boy now, and the kids at the new school don’t know him, so I hope we won’t have any incidents similar to what happened to Sam. I think Sam AND Mrs. H handled things really well, and I hope someone gave Tim some lessons in treating people respectfully.
Hi Anne – thanks for your kind words and sharing your current situation! Sending good thoughts for your son’s experience in his new school!
This made me tear up a little bit. I’m so happy and relieved to know that there are some teachers out there who will handle a situation where a trans* teen is being bullied with empathy, respect and genuine care. I hope Ms. H. won Teacher of the Year!
The main reason I wanted to comment, though, is to say how well-written and mature Sam’s email to Ms. H. was. As a non-binary person myself, I know that Sam has had to learn those skills younger than most kids, because he has faced so much prejudice. But it shows how smart and strong he is that he could write an email about such a painful experience so eloquently. I hope he’s still in touch with Ms. H (and that he’s been lucky enough to never have to have Tim in his class ever again). Best wishes to you and your family! And thank you so much for this blog. You are doing a world of good for trans* kids, and for their parents and families too. I wish there had been blogs like yours around when I was in high school!
This made me emotional but gave me such hope as I read what could very well happen to my son next year. Currently, he and his twin sister are in an extremely tolerant and supportive focus school but next year they start at a large high school and I am so nervous for him. We are doing everything we can to prepare and have been assured by the administration that they’ve navigated these waters before and that my son will have 100% of their support. I hope he has a Mrs. H too. Deep breaths as we embark on the very scary high school years raising our teenage transgender son.
Thinking of you Kathryn and sending virtual hugs…I understand your worry! What I have found as I go around and speak at different schools – elementary, middle and high schools – is that awareness is spreading and with that comes acceptance. Hearts and minds are changing for the better!