Accepting Them

As a veteran English teacher, I found myself in some new territory this year. There were several students in my classes who identified with a gender other than the one they were born with. This, in and of itself, was not the problem for me; however, grading writing where plural pronouns were being used to identify one person was.

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One of my best student writers submitted an assignment where “they” and “them” replaced “he” or “she” and “him” and “her.”  A creative piece, otherwise near-perfect in its composition and execution, I struggled with my role as teacher and grammarian versus liberal and humanitarian.

In the end, I gave the writing the grade it deserved: an A. I had seen enough of this student’s work; they clearly had a strong foundation of grammatical constructs, so instead I wrote a note at the end of the paper. It read:

I think the writing in this piece is very strong. As a teacher, I struggle with the pronoun use in it though. “They” and “Them” gets very confusing when you are talking about one person. I get that pronoun choice is part of the battle of gender dysphoria/transgender/gender fluid et al.—but I think a singular “he/she,” “him/her” would help. Unless there is a reason for “them/they” that I am ignorant to, in which case—Please educate me. 

I was all set to return the paper to the student at the start of the new semester; unfortunately, they moved to another school and I never had the opportunity; I would have to educate myself.

The book Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout was suggested by a friend/colleague after I had discussed the pronoun dilemma with her. She had seen an interview with the author, Laura Jane Grace, a transgender woman, and thought it might offer me some insight.

Another book I read was Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family. In it, the author discussed gender as a spectrum, and some of the research behind the human brain and gender identity was truly fascinating. I read the book in a day.

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As I was reading, my oldest daughter asked me about the book. I explained to her that it was about two identical twin boys, one of whom felt like a girl, and so the title Becoming Nicole is because the boy, originally named Wyatt, becomes Nicole- a girl.

My eight-year-old nodded her head sagely. When I asked, “Does that make sense?” She said it did, and it reminded me of something else I had read: an article by Janet Mock which was published in The New York Times shortly after Trump rescinded Obama’s rules on bathrooms for transgendered students: “Young People Get Trans Rights. It’s Adults Who Don’t.”

When taking attendance on the first day of school, I routinely ask students to tell me if they have a nickname or something else they prefer to be called other than the name on my roster. Last year, I had a boy I called Batman for the entire year. Often I get Alex for Alejandro or Nick for Nicholas. Occasionally a student will go by their middle name or first and middle initials. But this year, the names some students preferred weren’t simply nicknames, they were self-selected names that match the gender they identify with. Over the course of the year, I have forgotten these students’ birth names; I accept them for who they want me to see, who they really are.

Yet when students in my creative writing class were deciding who their partners would be for workshopping their latest writing assignments and one student said that he would partner with someone else because “they” were going to use the restroom, and then gestured towards another peer, I was confused.

“Wait. Who is going to the restroom?”

“They are.” And again, the gesture—a point at one individual student.

Because it is a small class, we openly discussed the use of they as a singular pronoun. I expressed my struggle with it, especially when used in writing, or in the case in which it had just been presented. “As the teacher, I need to know how many students are leaving for the restroom. When you say they, I assume there is more than one.” I shared with them the last two books I had read, and they shared with me who they felt they were.

“I’m a male” one student told me, matter-of-factly.

“I know.” I said, even though the student’s records report otherwise.

However, when the class ended, I still felt conflicted. I didn’t want my student who preferred “they” to think that because I felt the pronoun use was wrong, that they were wrong. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that for people who identified as male or female, a he or she pronoun made sense. But if you’re smack dab in the middle of the gender spectrum, which pronoun should you use? My research continued.

The first article that I came across was published in the San Diego Gay and Lesbian Newsletter (SDGLN.com), titled “Is ‘They’ insane? The awkwardness of using plural pronouns to address one person.” Authored by a transgender woman, it captured exactly how I felt about the issue. Holly Maholm wrote, “This was not just a change in ‘gender’ in the grammatical sense, but a change of ‘number’…I found this change befuddling. I could make the ‘gender’ change in conversation, but the change in ‘number’ absolutely stymied me.”

Yes! I thought. But then I scrolled through the comments. A few attacked the author as “transphobic” but even more mentioned usages in the English language where they was singular, referencing authors (Shakespeare amongst them) who had used it in their writing.

Maybe I was wrong.

Then I came across The New York Time’s “Who’s ‘They’?” and my ignorance was confirmed.

Amanda Hess wrote, “central to the appeal of the singular ‘they’ is that it’s often deployed unconsciously. It’s regularly repurposed as a linguistic crutch when an individual’s gender is unknown or irrelevant. You might use it to refer to a hypothetical person who, say, goes to the store and forgets ‘their’ wallet. That casual usage has a long history — it has appeared in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen and Shaw. It wasn’t until 1745, when the schoolmistress-turned-grammar-expert Ann Fisher proposed ‘he’ as a universal pronoun for a person of unknown gender, that the use of ‘they’ in the same circumstance was respun as grammatically incorrect.”

Respun.

Yet another article “Pronouns Affect Transgender People—And All of Us” published in the Chicago Tribune quoted Carolyn Schneider, a counselor of transgender people, who makes the case that, “A pronoun is part of our core identity.” If my student identified with they, who was I to deny them? The author of the article, Mary Schmich, concludes the piece by saying that learning how to use the correct pronouns is, “A journey, a negotiation and an education that all add up to one word: respect.”

In my classroom, it has always been about respect. If my students feel less respected because of my discomfort in using they as a singular pronoun, then I needed to become more comfortable with it. I knew I was going to make mistakes, but if I could acknowledge those mistakes and show them that I was trying, then I could maintain their respect.

The next day they was absent.

“Where is they?” … Where are they?

This was not going to be easy.

As one of our daily writing prompts, I asked my creative writing students to write from the point-of-view of two non-binary characters using “Pronouns—A How To Guide” from the University of Milwaukee’s LGBT Resource Center.

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They all struggled with the prompt, but afterwards, a few of them shared what they had written. Even the student who had successfully used vever, and vis in their writing found reading it aloud to be a challenge.

One student commented, “That was hard, but I think we should try it again.”

They agreed.

I did too.

 

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Love and Loss: What Children Learn from Having Pets

The last time we took the whole family back to New York, my children were handed money and gifts wherever they went. Grandparents and great-grandparents were making it rain and when my husband and I protested, they would insist. “We never see them! Let them take it and buy something they’ll like.” We returned home and what they liked was a dwarf hamster.

“You’ll have to wait to ask your father,” I told the girls as we left the pet store that afternoon, and since their father didn’t get home from work till after they were asleep, I thought it was entirely possible they would forget about it.

The first words my youngest spoke that next morning were, “Daddy, can we buy a hamster?”

Whereas my husband owned pet hamsters while growing up, I did not. I had heard many a tale of how whenever his aunt came over he would pretend that his hamster was in the plastic running ball. He would shout for her to look and then he would throw the ball (sans hamster) down the stairs resulting in his aunt having something resembling a coronary attack.

“Please, Daddy. Can we? We’ll take good care of it.” I knew he would say yes.

That afternoon, our girls pooled their money and we came home with a dwarf hamster they named Sugar and all of his accoutrements.

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I did a little research and learned a few interesting tidbits about dwarf hamsters. In addition to finding out what fresh foods we should and should not feed him, I also learned that they run the equivalent of four marathons each night. If it weren’t for their stubby little legs, they would be one of the faster species on Earth. Our hamster preferred to begin running whenever my husband and I settled down to watch Netflix at night, often resulting in having to disable his wheel until we were ready to retire to bed.

The other thing I learned about dwarf hamsters is that the average life expectancy is only about two years. That didn’t seem very long compared to, say, my cat whom I had for nearly seventeen. Not knowing how old the hamster was when we got him, I often found myself peering hesitantly in his cage during the day, looking for signs of life. Was his fur moving? Could I see the rise and fall of his little belly while he slept? I hadn’t studied a sleeping body this closely since I first brought home a newborn. They both seemed as fragile. 

While there are other hands-on methods for checking for life, there was no way that was happening. As a member of the rodent family, there were some strict rules regarding the hamster. 1) Mom doesn’t clean its cage, and 2) Mom does not touch it. While I thought it was rather cute, it wasn’t cute enough to make me want to cradle the thing in my palm. If the kids wanted to hold him, they’d better ask their dad. And other than that one time that the dog knocked over its cage and I was forced to trap the hamster before it ran under the couch, I stuck to those rules.

We are a home of many animals, but I’m not really an animal lover. My husband acts shocked if he ever catches me petting one of our two dogs. I loved my cat, but cats are assholes, which is probably why I prefer them. You can leave them alone and most times, they’re okay with that.

We got our first dog when our first born was about a year old, and most of why I agreed to it was because I believe that pets are good for children. They teach them so many things: responsibility, kindness, companionship, discipline, and most of all–they teach them about love and loss.

Over the course of my children’s lives, they’ve said goodbye to several goldfish, a crawdad, a hermit crab, and two cats. One cat “ran away” to live with another family; I suspect a family of coyotes, but I didn’t share that part with my then three-year old daughter. My cat, Milo, was put down the Christmas Eve before last. It was difficult saying goodbye to a companion who had witnessed nearly two decades of my life. He had seen me marry and have children. He had let those children pull on his tail and decorate him with tiaras and beaded necklaces. We all loved him, and he had loved us back.

Recently, when my husband mentioned that Sugar had been awake all day, running on his wheel, I thought, that’s strange. In hindsight, that day of running must have been his last hoo-rah, the sudden burst of energy and alertness one experiences at the end of life. The following day, when I told my daughter to clean the cage, she took it to the counter in the kitchen, opened the door, and lifted the little house.

“Sugar must be really tired,” she said.

Shit. 

Peering in at him, his fur was not moving; there was no rise or fall in his little belly. It had been about two years, and our hamster had died.

My little one cried. In between giant tears, she lifted her head off my chest.

“Mommy, I want a guinea pig.”

Oh, hell no! Now a kitten on the other hand…

Later that evening, we each said a few words about Sugar before my husband buried him in the flower garden. The word my youngest chose was family.

I never wanted my children to grow up not knowing about death. Things we love leave us. Sometimes that happens at the end of a life, but often times, it just happens. Dealing with loss may not ever get easier, but in having pets, my children will grow up knowing that when you love something, you do all you can to give it a good life, and at the end of that life, if you can say that you’ve done that, then you’ve done your best. No one can ask for anything more.