The last day of school. The second-to-last class of the day.
“Ms. G, we have a question.”
This is nothing new. This is how many of my students – and these two in particular – often start class.
“Great!” I reply, as usual.
“Not about biology.”
“Ok!” I’m happy to go off-topic. And, if they’re asking me, even questions they think aren’t about biology often have a biological connection. These are the two whose questions, for months, probed the causes and intricacies of diarrhea, why a person might cry a little while pooping, whether there are biological origins behind the stereotypical lispy “gay voice” of some gay men, the ethics and methods of killing nuisance pigeons, the superhero potential of future human mutations, and whether our class lab methods could be twisted and abused by an evil scientist.
“Why do you have a beard?”
I nearly laughed. Really? Finally? All year they’d been wondering? I assumed they knew. I assumed that the rumor mill had taken care of that. When I told my students nearly 4 years ago that I was going to grow out my beard, I explained it all. I had imagined that this information had made its way through the collective student brain, along with the details of which teachers never checked homework and who was a stickler on tardiness. Apparently not.
“It just grows there. When I was thirteen, hair started growing on my chin. For years, I shaved and tweezed to get rid of it. Then, about, um, five years ago, I decided to grow it out. I was just going to grow it for a few weeks, to try it. But it was easier than I thought, and I liked it, and people responded well, so I figured I’d let it go for a few months. And it was easier than I thought, and I liked it, and people responded well, so I kept it.”
“Oh! Ok. Huh! Wow.” Nods and smiles.
“So it just grows there?”
“Yep. No added hormones or anything. Many men grow beards, but some don’t. Most women don’t grow beards, but some do. Most of those women hide it – I’ve had a lot of women tell me that they have beards that they tweeze and shave, and no one knows.”
“Huh! Really. That’s interesting.”
“Honestly, I’m surprised you’re only asking now.”
“Well, we didn’t want to upset you. We thought you might get mad, since, you know, it’s personal.”
“No, it’s fine to ask. Sorry I didn’t make that clear earlier. I didn’t mean to make you nervous!” I smiled.
“Well, we didn’t know if you’d be ok with it.”
“Well, I’m glad you asked,” I said, smiling.
It was a great end to the year. Two of my most delightfully inquisitive and open students, finally getting up the courage to ask a question that seemed, to them, more taboo than all the rest.
I’m relieved, I must say, to find out that the student rumor mill doesn’t work as well as I thought, and also to find out that the students have a strong sense of boundaries. Even if the outside observer wouldn’t describe them as having strong boundaries, as they ask about poop and sex, they apparently do have strong boundaries, just in a different place that I might have guessed. Personally, I like that their boundaries allow them to ask for information that relevant to them, on all manner of topics, but keeps them out of the personal lives of teachers. I don’t know that I would have guess that that was a school and community norm, but I’m pleased to find some evidence that it is. It also reassures me that, hopefully, other details of my personal life will stay personal in this school community.
And, considering this, next year I need to let students know early on that they can ask about my beard, or just explain it during a lesson on gender or hormones.
I haven’t been very active on this blog lately.
Partially this is because the frequency of new beard stories is dropping off – I’m getting repeats of the same ones or not getting any responses at all, as I run into the same people over and over again.
And, partially, this is because my life has been full of a number of new and fantastic things – including but not limited to a new and amazing partner, being president of one nonprofit and on the board of another, finishing up the school year, and moving to the east bay.
If things go well this summer, I’ll be working on editing and compiling these stories to turn them into a book. Wish me luck!
I moved from SF to Oakland a week and a half ago. I’m learning my way around – new errands, new routes, new familiar strangers – clerks, cashiers, etc. In the Oakland Kaiser Pharmacy this morning: A black butch-type person, maybe a few years older than me. Wearing black athletic clothes – jersey over tshirt, track pants. Flattened-looking chest, short short hair, no facial hair visible. We cross paths as I’m walking up to the dropoff line and ze is walking away from the counter. “How you get that?” motioning to hir chin. “It just grows there.” Shakes hir head. “Nah!” “Yep.” “I be hatin’!” ze says enviously. I shrub my shoulders and smile, “Sorry!” Ze smiles. An older black woman and a 7-year-old girl are sitting across from me as we wait for our respective medications. She smiles and says, “How are you?” I smile, “Fine, thanks. How’re you?” “I’m good, I’m good.” Which would be the end of the friendly-stranger encounter, but she holds my gaze a bit longer, still smiling. Then she turns the book she’s reading towards me, showing me that she’s reading Stephanie Brill’s “The Transgender Child.” She doesn’t say anything more, but still smiles warmly at me in a way that makes me think I should respond. “Ah, I’ve heard good things about that book. I haven’t read it, but I’ve read her other one, on lesbian parenting.” She tells me that she’s reading it because she’s got 4 children – 2 teens, I think, and I forget the details on the others – who are transgender, so she wanted to brush up a bit. “Ah, that’s great,” I say, while I try to figure out what she means by she “has” 4 trans kids – she’s a parent to these kids? Foster parent? Four is a lot. Teacher, maybe? She explains that these are kids at her church, the City of Refuge, a UCC church in SF. She asks if I saw the parade, because her church sang in the parade. I explain that I didn’t see the parade because I was in it, way back in the lineup. She tells me how the church is moving to Oakland soon, due to parking issues, and that they have people coming from as far away as Sacramento for her church. She invites me to services – Sundays at 1pm – and I smile and say that it sounds nice, but I think my hesitation is clear in my voice. She takes a phone call, lets the girl know that her mama’s meeting them soon, and then goes back to reading her book.