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 am a university instructor (grad student) and have had a similar experience around being out as queer in the classroom and students’ hesitation to ask questions. It is a good affirmation of student/professor boundaries. Though last semester I had one class that asked a lot more personal questions after I came out, and I am not exactly sure why the dynamic was different, perhaps I was more relaxed having been teaching for a while by then, and was more open about my life. Either way is fine with me (as long as they don’t get too probing with questions), especially as I teach in a WMST classroom and am trying to break down lines of power/authority to a certain degree.
PS. Just found your blog through a google alert I have on “trans kids” which popped up the most recent post about the trip to the grocery store. I like your writing style and am enjoying reading through your posts.