I See You: Students, their Teachers, and Gender Identity
**Guest Blogger:Noa Vitaly Shvadron
The first time I encountered the issue of children’s sexuality was while I was an educator at a school in Israel. The year was 2013 and in my First grade classroom there was a boy whose sexual identity was perfectly clear to him: he felt like a girl. He always played with the girls, kept away from any aggression or competition and even adopted a unique style of speech and unique body language with his hands when speaking or walking. He was obviously different and presented distinctly from the other students in my class.
The other boys in my class did not know how to behave around him and mainly feared his differences and kept a careful distance. In contrast, the group of girls adopted him organically as if he was one of them. As a young teacher, no one taught me how to speak or mediate gender issues for six-year-olds; I acted intuitively and made sure to keep my student's gentle soul away from any abusive comments. I tried as much as I could to make him feel that he was not excluded from the social environment of the class.
For the purpose of the story I will name the student Eyal. Eyal had many learning issues. He had difficulty reading, writing and his attention span was significantly shorter than the other students. However, he always respected the classroom norms and was sensitive to his surroundings, especially to me. As his thoughts wandered during learning he would decorate the notebook pages with colorful butterflies and rainbows. He liked to use bright and happy colors for his paintings. His mind and head were full of thoughts and in personal conversations between us, he would share with me his secret dreams, how he would like to go to a gymnastics class like the other girls in class, but his mother encouraged him to go to a karate classes; how he would like to grow his hair and decorate it in colorful pins and headbands, but he knew he was not allowed and that “it was only for girls”’ as he said.
Whenever he shared with me his secret longings a smile appeared on his face and every time he expressed his wish he would laugh and say "I’m just joking with you", as if he were ashamed and connected back to the clear, gendered reality of how gender is perceived by society at large.
His mind and head were full of thoughts and in personal conversations between us, he would share with me his secret dreams...
Eyal's parents were very involved and my communication with them was mostly about their son's learning problems and social issues. Every time I wanted to open the issue of his gender identity, I felt that the taboo of broaching it was insurmountable. Each time, I would encounter a barrier from the parents side. They did not want to open up about Eyal's struggles regarding his identity. Eyal's father was a detective in the Israeli Police department -- a perfect specimen of an “Israeli man” a veritable masculine stereotype; a veteran of a combat unit, tough and serious. The parents tried to prevent Eyal from playing with the girls and ordered him to play with the boys and stay away from the girls. His mother tried to convince him to take karate classes, but he kept refusing. The parents went over the top to invite the boys in the class for a playdate, but every time a boy would come, Eyal misbehaved and the playdate went awfully wrong.
Back then, I felt that I did not have nearly enough tools to communicate and guide Eyal's parents or maybe because it was only my second year as a homeroom teacher. I also lacked the courage to talk to them openly about how I saw their son. I felt helpless in the situation but at the same time understood their concerns as to how Israeli society would view their child. In a country like Israel where we, in a way, “sacrifice” our sons for the safety of our existence, gender stereotypes are deeply entrenched. The need to raise strong boys, that one day might need to fight in a battle to protect our nation, is an inherent need that has a profound impact on how we raise our sons and daughters.
As Eyal’s teacher, I was concerned. I felt that he was constantly preoccupied with his gender identity. These thoughts left in his brain little room for learning. The weight he carried on his young shoulders influenced his self-confidence about what kind of student he was. His self-esteem as a learner was very low. Sometimes he gave up before he even began a task, and said he did not understand the assignment. Other times he called himself stupid, or not good.
In a country like Israel where we, in a way, “sacrifice” our sons for the safety of our existence, gender stereotypes are deeply entrenched. The need to raise strong boys, that one day might need to fight in a battle to protect our nation, is an inherent need that has a profound impact on how we raise our sons and daughters.
At a certain point, I felt that I needed professional help to elucidate to his parents the complex struggles Eyal experienced during the school day, which impeded his learning ability. It was a fragile situation, it was clear to me that the learning problems were tied up with his emotional struggles and the fact that his family didn’t accept him for the way he was. I decided to involve the school psychologist and a meeting with the parents was scheduled. Eyal's parents asked permission for the family psychologist to join the conversation. It was the first time I had heard that the family was in psychological treatment and frankly I was much more at ease.
I felt that, for the first time, we will speak openly about the gender issue, and I would be able to share about how I really see Eyal in class and during the day. The day of the meeting came, we met in my principal's room, and both parents came with the school psychologist and the family’s psychologist. There was tension in the air. Whenever we tried to talk about the issue of Eyal’s sexuality, the family psychologist interfered and acted as a protective fence; she rejected our attempts to talk about the “elephant in the room”. We went back to the usual conversation and the parents emphasized that the most important thing was to help Eyal be normal, encourage him to play with the boys, encourage him to play soccer on the field, and try to keep him away from socializing with the girls. "I don't want him to be laughed at," his mother said. "My biggest fear is that the child will feel excluded and different from his peers”.
I felt that I was completely losing control of the direction in which the conversation was going. I explained to the parents that I have no control over the children's social choices, and from my experience we all have little control over it. I reassured them that in our class all children feel safe to express themselves, to speak their minds, and to play with whomever they wish. My job is to enable this safe space and I see that Eyal feels safe in the classroom, comes to school with joy, and that's what really matters.
"I don't want him to be laughed at," his mother said. "My biggest fear is that the child will feel excluded and different from his peers”.
The conversation ended. We realized that the parents were not interested in talking about the subject of their son’s sexuality, the fear of touching the subject was felt throughout the conversation. The educators felt that we could not push the parents to talk about the subject and respected their wishes in this regard.
The year came to its end, and while Eyal remained academically behind, he made close friendships with the girls. I felt his parents released the pressure a little and stopped pushing him to play only with the boys. As a homeroom teacher, I accompanied Eyal for two years in First Grade and then in Second Grade. During the summer vacation between First Grade and Second Grade, we started the Junkyard Project in school. It was a wonderful project that came from children’s play yards in the kibbutzim.The parents donated old items that were no longer in use (phones, computers, washing machines, pots, pans and one teacher even brought her old private car). The junkyard mimics the adult world and allows children to experience free and imaginary play that relies on familiar real-world environments.
I reassured them that in our class all children feel safe to express themselves, to speak their minds, and to play with whomever they wish. My job is to enable this safe space and I see that Eyal feels safe in the classroom, comes to school with joy, and that's what really matters.
Twice a week I went with my students to the junkyard. They loved pretending that we were in a restaurant. Some kids were the waiters, some the customers and some the cooks. The boys tended to create an electronics store and pretend to be buyers and sellers; the girls tended to play in the kitchen area. Sometimes the kids would get into the car and drive to far away countries. I especially liked teaching Math in the junkyard. Eyal liked the junkyard lessons very much, and he always preferred to play in the kitchen area. These were the few lessons where I allowed myself to let go and let the children play independently. I enjoyed being a fly on the wall and watching from the sidelines their social dynamic and the delicate revelations of my students’ character and personality as reflected through the free play in the yard.
One day while I was with students’ at the Junkyard, one of the girls came running up towards me. She was yelling enthusiastically: "Eyal is a girl! Eyal is a girl!”. I didn’t quite understand the situation so I approached the kitchen area where Eyal was playing with two more girls. I saw him sitting on a chair at the “Coffee Shop” table, one of the girls served him with a cup of coffee and said: "Here you go ma'am”, and put a cup of imaginary coffee in front of him. Eyal replied: "Thank you I love (Eyal used the Hebrew feminine word for ‘love’ in that context) your sweet hot coffee". The girl who called me looked at me with funny eyes and waited for my response as Eyal continued speaking as a girl. "Can I join you?" I asked Eyal. The two other girls that were playing with him turned to me and said politely: "Sorry Noa, but we prefer to play by ourselves." I understood that this “secret” conversation where Eyal is pretending to be a girl can not be maintained with any adults nearby. I respected that, and also felt that the girls were very much aware of the difference in Eyal’s behavior. I found a remote enough corner where they could not see me but I could still hear their conversation.
I discovered that Eyal decided to change his name to Ayelet and he continued to play the role of a “picky” woman in a restaurant. The girls served him with imaginary dishes as he tasted them and criticized them. His body language was extravagant, the way that he talked was different, he was using his hands a lot, and exaggerated his facial expressions -- it was quite amusing. The girls found it amusing too, as they were all laughing together. He was very talented in playing the role of an “hysterical” woman sitting in a restaurant. I felt lucky to be able to observe this delicate and intimate situation where he felt so confident and joyful expressing himself. I was happy that he found the Junkyard as a safe space to be true to his inclination and be perceived by his surroundings in an accepting, caring way.
At the end of the year we said our goodbyes. Eyal went up to third grade and I was receiving new first grade students. His mother wrote me a long touching letter, thanking me for accepting Eyal’s uniqueness and creating a safe space for him in the classroom where he felt accepted by the other children. It was the one time where she talked about his gender struggle even if she didn’t say it explicitly. I completed the year with mixed feelings about how I handled Eyal’s gender identity struggle. I felt I was fearful about confronting his parents about their child’s sexuality. Deep down in my heart I felt I should have done more to advocate his wishes and to stand up on his behalf in front of his parents.
I felt lucky to be able to observe this delicate and intimate situation where he felt so confident and joyful expressing himself. I was happy that he found the Junkyard as a safe space to be true to his inclination and be perceived by his surroundings in an accepting, caring way.
Years passed, and after my marriage I left my school, the place I was so invested in and attached. I moved to the United States and started working at a private reform Jewish school in Hollywood. I found out that there is a whole new language about gender identity here. Students experimenting with their sexuality, gender identity workshops for the teachers, a diverse parent body including many same sex families. Everything is open here and there is no wrong or right when it comes to who you are. It’s amazing to see how the kids here accept others in such a deep way. It's not a sticker on the wall; it is how we live here. It is who we are.
If only then I had known what I know today about gender identity, sexuality among students, accepting communities, I believe I could have guided Eyal and his family to have a different experience than the one they had. How much burden Eyal carries on his little shoulders, a burden that directly affects his learning abilities and his confidence as a student. If only we would have let him spread his wings and embrace his colors, Eyal wouldn't have been ashamed of who he is.
The change is burning inside me. I want to shake those rigid structures of gender identity and enlighten those educational systems that are afraid of change. I could only be hopeful that the wind of diversity will blow eventually into my homeland, Israel, soon enough, that our Israeli children will feel safe to love themselves for who they truly are.
**Noa Vitaly Shvadron has been teaching Hebrew at Briskin Elementary School of Temple Israel of Hollywood for four years. She earned her degree in Creative Education for Early Childhood and was a lead teacher for six years at Ramat-Ha'chayal Elementary School in Tel- Aviv. When Noa was released from army service, she journeyed across India and there she first discovered her love for children when she taught an Indian child writing and drawing. Noa always believed that working in education left a spark of childhood in her and that educators must find the key to their students' hearts in order to create a meaningful learning experience.