Walking in the Shoes of an LGBTQA student: “Be educated so you can educate others.”
I wanted to share my recent Walking in the Shoes experience and the time I spent with Tristan, a junior at Squalicum High School. This school year (2015-16), I am focusing on spending time with students with unique circumstances. I’m a little behind schedule! I had a great time last year shadowing staff, and I’m thrilled to be able to focus again on our students.
My first walking in the shoes this year was with Tristan, who used to be known as Shannon. They (notice the use of “they” because not everyone falls into the “he/she” binary) are a transitioning high school student, and I was really excited about our day together, which happened to be the second day of the second semester in January. Tristan told me that going to some of their classes for the first time as a transgender student can be hard because even introducing yourself can feel difficult and awkward. Their year-long classes are choir, AP Biology and AP Psychology and new classes included technical writing, business and marketing, and world literature philosophy. Tristan likes taking AP classes, but they’re required to take AP tests at the end of the year and those come with a price tag. The $92 charge for each test presents a real challenge for some of our students and families.
I learned Tristan attended Columbia Elementary (shout out to former principal Ms. Ferguson, who Tristan loved!), Shuksan Middle and now Squalicum High Schools. They still have a lot of friends from elementary and middle school and Tristan smiled when they told me some just say “hey you!” if or when they aren’t sure which name to use.
I got to experience their 10:20 a.m. THOR class, which stands for Tutoring, Homework, Organization and Reading. We were in a classroom with 30 new desktops (thanks, technology levy!), and it was great to hear how awesome the new computers are. Tristan worked on an assignment for next period: business and marketing.
Ms. Stevens taught business and marketing, (with more brand new computers – thanks again tech levy!) and today’s class was all about branding. It was interesting to hear students’ reflections about what kinds of quality and values they associate with a variety of businesses (like Macy’s, Target, Chipotle, etc.). Students got to design their own logos and business cards that reflect their own brand identity.
I was able to attend Tristan’s philosophy class taught by Mr. Dolmatz, and this was the first day of class, so Tristan had to be prepared that their name would be called for attendance. This can be a stressful situation for students as they may be referenced by a name others may not be familiar with. It went smoothly, and Tristan seemed very relaxed. I learned that Tristan met with Mr. Dolmatz the week prior to explain their context, and Mr. Dolmatz later shared with me how appreciative he was for the conversation and interaction. He said he’s hoping to engage more with Tristan about whether they want to share or explain to the class anything further about their background (or not).
I also have to give a shout out to Mr. Dolmatz, who is one of our Promise Award winners! I guess this is one of the good things about waiting to send out my blog: I get to link to updates that we didn’t know or have finalized back in January when I walked in Tristan’s shoes. Mr. Dolmatz is an amazing teacher who has taught for 37 years and is retiring after this school year. I could go on and on about him and all the teachers I witnessed, but I’m already running long on this blog… I’ll just add that the students love the unlimited access to hot chocolate and hot tea.J
It was a pleasure getting to know Tristan and hearing various reflections about school, wake up times and their passions. They are really involved in after school drama and the QSA (Queer Straight Alliance) Club. At the time, Tristan was going to be an assistant director in an upcoming play, then planning to co-direct a play after that.
Tristan shared with me that it’s been great having gender neutral bathrooms this year at Squalicum. I shared with them that the district is making this change at our middle and high schools, and as we build new schools and facilities, we want to keep improving on our intentionality to make more restrooms accessible to all. We have also recently added new LGBTQ+ Welcome signs in our schools.
At lunch, I enjoyed a Harvest of the Month chicken sandwich, and we sat with many of Tristan’s friends. They talked about some of their favorite elementary and middle school teachers, and it was wonderful to hear their sweet and funny memories. It was also a great reminder how some students in our system are able to go to elementary, middle and high school together. They also talked about their emotional goodbye to Mr. Marshall last year and how excited they were to have Mr. Parker as their new choir teacher. It’s always good when we can land an outstanding person to take over for someone with really big shoes to fill.
I had to ask them about high school start times in light of the bell time adjustments that were coming (but in January hadn’t yet been announced). Tristan said they wake up at 5:30 or 6 a.m. to catch a 7 a.m. bus and loved the thought of more sleep. They said they especially felt bad for their friends who are in Storm Singers and arrive at school at 6:30 a.m. Tristan said, “They love the class, but it sucks that they have to get up so early.” I’m looking forward to having music and more electives be incorporated into the new schedule and to allow our students the sleep they need.
One of the most meaningful aspects of my day with Tristan was attending the QSA after school club at Squalicum.
There were about two dozen students from all different grade levels who attended the club (and me) and the QSA advisor, Bethany Barrett. We all sat in a circle and their meeting begins with a “check-in,” which involves each student saying their name, what pronouns they prefer for themselves, how their day was and an answer to the question of the day.
The question of the day was, “What tattoo or piercing would you get?”Answers ranged from sentimental names of loved ones, meaningful quotes to a sailboat (that was mine!).
I observed a lot of smiles and laughter throughout the meeting, and a lot of support for one another.
Students talked candidly about a lot of different topics, including topics in the news and curriculum, specifically about health class, like what they feel is missing from our teaching and learning about sexuality and ways we could broaden our curriculum to be more inclusive.
Students also talked about pronoun use by staff, and the power of more neutral “they/them” as opposed to “he/she.” They have many wishes and wonders for our district, including more staff training and student education about bullying and healthy vs. abusive/unhealthy relationships; improved support for LGBTQ+ students; stronger learning about the use of gender neutral terms (from registration forms with “male or female” check boxes to a classroom tactic to have “girls on one side and boys on the other”); and revising the high school dress code so it’s more gender neutral (which we did last year at the middle school level).
One student articulated their wish for our staff: “be educated so you can educate others.”
I want to give a shout out to Bethany, who helps provide this supportive and amazing environment for our students.
We also talked about The Bellingham Promise, our strategic plan, which guides our work, and our mission:
We collectively commit that our students are cared for and respected, and that
they will graduate from our schools prepared for success in the global community.
Each will be exceptional in his or her own way, with strong character, a passion for learning, and ready for the widest range of educational and vocational options
to support a diversity of life choices.
We do not take edits to The Promise lightly, nor do we make changes often, but I greatly appreciate the feedback to change “his or her” to “their” and believe this is a revision worth making.
Many students talked about what they perceive as nervousness by staff to try to be more gender neutral and their reluctance to use “they/them” instead of “he/she.” This point really resonated with me, because before my day with Tristan, I was worried I was going to mess up and use the wrong name or pronoun. Tristan, Bethany and all the LGBTQ+ students I met that day were all very reassuring and always gracious about my missteps. Their wonderful attitude helped me realize that this is another powerful part of helping support our staff and each other: our students can be our most powerful teaching and learning tool!
Thank you, Tristan, the QSA club and the team at Squalicum for an amazing day!