Saturday, June 6, 2015

More than Skin Deep: Caitlyn Jenner's Transformation Can Help Us All

When Caitlyn Jenner's Vanity Fair cover was revealed on the web, I expected some discussion of it in my classes.

I teach middle school choir, with boys and girls in different groups.  My girls talked about how pretty Caitlyn looked, with the discussion quickly moving into other Kardashian-related issues.  Pretty much par for the course.

But my boys?  They asked me these questions:

Does that mean Bruce Jenner was gay?
What is the difference between gay and transgendered?
How can she be a woman if she is still biologically male?
How is identity different from sexuality?

Yes, I got those questions from a room full of boys ages 12-14.  They were serious questions, too.  Not a giggle or smirk, no one elbowing or waggling eyebrows.  They wanted to understand what this means for Caitlyn, but these are questions they have about friends and family members and have never had the opportunity to ask.

I was so proud.  Nervous, but proud.  We had a great discussion, which gave me the opportunity to talk about things that I feel passionately about, the main one of which is this: nothing in life is more important than being comfortable in your own skin.  When you feel "wrong," life is miserable.  No matter what you do to be successful, you will not be happy until you find that peace within yourself that comes from knowing who you are.

Part of that, I firmly believe, is having others recognize and accept you for yourself.  One of the most well-intentioned failings I believe we have as a society is when we teach kids "it's what is on the inside that counts," because that is a lie.

Yes, you heard me.  A lie.

We tell them that the inside is what matters, but we have dress codes that prohibit many forms of self-expression because local community standards deem them harmful or distracting.  We can only judge people based on what we see: the way they present themselves, the way they address others, and the actions they commit are all we can know, because we only know what is inside ourselves.

Does that mean what's inside doesn't count? Of course not!!  It is supremely important, but we should be helping our kids find ways to make their outsides match what is on the inside.

When a student is rude or disrespectful to me, I take it outside.  Not to yell at the kid without witnesses, but for a discussion that always starts with this question:

Are you angry or upset with me?

Most students are thrown by this question.  They have not been asked this by a teacher before.  Most of them are still bristly and defensive, because they are expecting to be sent to the office or yelled at.  Once I finally get them to listen, I say again:

I really want to know, be honest and don't be afraid of offending me: are you upset or angry with me?

99% of the time, the answer is no.  They are angry or upset, but not with me.  Now we can talk about what is really going on, which includes me explaining that all I know is what I see, so when I see rudeness or disrespect directed towards me I have to assume it is due to a problem they have with me.

Sometimes it turns out they had a problem in another class and they are still upset.  Sometimes there are problems at home.  Sometimes there are social problems or personal dramas.  Whatever the issue, helping them understand how to present themselves and deal with feelings appropriately is an important lesson I try never to miss.

It doesn't always work.  But when it has worked, it works really well and I continue to hope that at least some of these kids go on to be happier and more successful.

So what does this have to do with Caitlyn Jenner?  I know personally how strange it is when your outside doesn't match the perception I have of myself on the inside.  Walking around feeling like an imposter in your own body.  If I felt that way because of purely physical characteristics (weight), how much more profound is it when it is your sexuality or gender identity?  A lot of our kids are going through that alone, afraid of the hostility or even violence they will face if they are honest, even with their closest friends.  Wouldn't it be great if we could create a society in which everyone gets to be themselves?

Society needs laws and standards, certainly.  But wasn't the United States of America founded on the ideals of personal freedoms? If being yourself doesn't hurt anyone, why is it wrong?  Not everyone has to like everything.  I may not like Ted Cruz, but he's allowed to go around spouting asinine observations and supremely unfunny half-jokes at will.  Freedom of speech, and all that.  I just believe that if we were allowed to help our kids discover more about themselves at an early age and encourage truthful self-expression we would all be better off for it.

That's all.

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