Always provide for a distraction when your child appears in public for the first time as his or her affirmed gender. I learned this and other things on Janet’s first day of school as a girl.
Ten days prior, TransYouth Family Allies had sent a representative to train a select group of teachers and staff to deal with the ramifications of a child starting out the school year as a boy and switching gender mid-year. The trainer reported that everyone felt much better after the workshop. But it was the principal who really surprised me. He looked like Jack LaLanne in his sixties. A medium-height man wearing tight tucked-in polo shirts emphasizing his buff physique and sporting a thin mustache groomed straight on his upper lip. I had always felt he had some difficulty looking people in the eye and seemed ill at ease when greeting people around the school. When this very same man told me that Janet should start wearing a dress as soon as possible I was blown away. He said that if Janet had traveled all the way to America from China at age eight in order to find a family that would finally see her for the girl she truly is, then he would go to any length to make sure she need not suffer another day under his auspices. He is now eager to train the entire school, and down the line the counselors from the whole district as well. If nothing else, having a transgender daughter has taught me to expect the unexpected.
But let’s return to the morning of Janet’s first day at school as Janet. Connor—one of my fifth graders—hugs me goodbye and takes off on his bike. Although a bike is faster he leaves for school before us to avoid the crowded sidewalks. I, on the other hand, dawdle, going out the door. The other three play catch on the lawn, backpacks lined up on the porch glider. I am blessed with children who hate to be late. But I don’t want to be early because Janet is wearing a skirt to school today for the first time and I don’t want her to linger too long on the school grounds in front of the crowds of ogling children.
It’s a humid spring day; the flowering cherries and crabapples have reached their peak. The vibrantly colored tulips amass in more diligent people’s gardens. En route to school my other fifth grader, Carl walks a little in front. He doesn't want to be associated with his annoying younger siblings. The day before he’d had his long locks shaved off into a short buzz cut. I grab Ted’s hand on my right, Janet’s on my left. Ted’s hand is cool and loose as always. Janet’s is a furnace—also, as always. Come summer I will usually refuse to hold her hand, I am extremely temperature sensitive and feel great discomfort by a hot touch when I am overheated. This morning is probably only in the sixties but it’s muggy and we’re warm from walking. Despite this I hold on tight.
I find I am bracing myself as when I see people we recognize. I peer into peoples’ eyes to determine what they are really thinking about us. We pass the house of the twins’ friend and I tense. He and his mom are in the driveway. “Hey, Carl, nice hair-cut!” the mom calls to Janet’s older brother. They are a new family and I have only met them to say “Hi.” I’m not sure they know the story of Janet. We keep walking.
We pass the first crossing guard, Bob, who greets us. Bob crossed us in the fall on Janet’s first day to school in America, when she sported a very close-shaven crew cut and wore boy’s clothing (does anyone else have problems with pronouns when writing about pre-transition days? I’ll use “she” because, really, she’s always been a girl, even when looking like a boy, we just didn’t know it.) Bob had broken his arm over Christmas so has missed most of the gradual transition from boys’ clothing, to pink shirts, to today wearing a skirt. He doesn’t know our names, though, so I don’t know if he assumes Janet is a girl or a boy. We keep walking.
We approach a dad that works with my husband. He waves hello and calls, “Nice hair-cut, Carl!” I’m beginning to let down my guard. The second crossing guard is a long-term sub. We pass with only one comment: “You got your hair cut!”
A friend and her daughter walk across the fields of the elementary school. She smiles and holds up one index finger, raising her eyebrows. “Is this the first day as Janet?” she’s asking with her gestures. I nod and gulp. As we get closer she tells Janet she likes her dress. Janet ducks her head and mumbles thank you. I can feel her pulling back on my hand, dragging her steps, not so sure anymore about the day ahead. Now we are cutting towards the front entrance. I really don’t notice anybody staring but I don’t see a lot of third graders either.
We walk in and I wave to the secretary through the glass windows. She smiles but a little uncertainly. I think she’s nervous about fielding phone calls from irate parents who didn’t like the letter that went home on transgender children. The gym teacher always stands in the hall and welcomes the students. Was his grin a little off? Not sure. Janet reports that somebody is laughing at her. I reassure her that people will have to get used to her dresses, it might take them a while to understand. But I don’t look to see who’s laughing. The halls are crowded and she’s worn her pink t-shirt and white pearl-buttoned cardigan before. So in the crowd not everyone will notice her skirt.
At the top of the stairs stand the fifth grade teachers, all young, unmarried and very kind. Their classrooms are right across the hall from Janet’s. A few months ago I had called two of the teachers to talk about Janet because her twin brothers were in fifth grade with them. I was relieved at their support. Last week they attended TYFA’s training and saw the 20/20 special on transgender children, “My Secret Self.” Now, one of them compliments Janet on her skirt and they all give us encouraging smiles.
Down the hall stands Janet’s teacher. She’s young and sweet but firm with her class about diversity and accepting differences. She has managed a classroom so far that has all been behind Janet, who has never gotten teased there, only amongst the wider school population. For her classmates only the name and the skirt will be different. They are all used to nail polish, stick-on earrings and drawings of princesses. Still, Janet hangs back reluctantly, trying to hide behind me. Seeing her so shy to go in, my eyes immediately well up with tears. All of a sudden I feel like we’re at pre-school and it’s the first time I’m leaving my baby girl. This is a new feeling for me because we didn’t have Janet around as a preschooler, having adopted her at age 8. I bend down to give her a quick hug then rise to greet the guidance counselor. We confirm that Janet wishes to leave the room when the counselor gives her brief introduction about transgender issues and the name change.
As I walk back down the hall the tears are falling faster. The cluster of fifth grade teachers all smile sympathetically, then one says, “Now stop that or I’m going to start crying too.” And then she does.
So begins Janet’s first day of school as Janet. Later we leave early for a dentist appointment so we miss the after-school mayhem and perhaps some unwelcome attention. And life goes on.