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.
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.
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me of something else I had read: an article by Janet Mock which was published in The New York Times shortly after Trump rescinded Obama’s rules on bathrooms for transgendered students: “Young People Get Trans Rights.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.”
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.
They all struggled with the prompt, but afterwards, a few of them shared what they had written. Even the student who had successfully used ve, ver, 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.”
I did too.
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