Jack is in eighth grade, in a small town where he goes to public school. You may not know Jack, but you certainly know a student like him. He enjoys wearing loafers with jeans, a Polo shirt and a cardigan wrapped around his shoulders like they did in the 80’s. Jack doesn’t go to a school that requires a dress code, but he certainly has a dress code for himself. He isn’t concerned about sports... but he certainly loves fashion.
...Now do you have a vision in your mind of someone?
On some days Jack likes to go through the hallway and put sticky notes on random lockers. They say things like “You look nice today,” “Make it a great day,” “I hope you have a good lunch period,” or “Make someone smile today...you know you can do it.” It’s not that Jack knows the kids who have the lockers, but he cares enough to take the time to make random people smile. Jack doesn’t sign his name....he does it anonymously. It’s not done for credit or attention, he really just wants people to feel good.
Jack takes 26 random acts of kindness very seriously...
Sometimes Jack is dramatic, but never disruptive. A little like Kurt on Glee. He should be a bit dramatic. After all, he has done about 25 plays in his young life. There are days he dreams of being on the big stage...somewhere on Broadway. Other times, he just likes to make people smile or laugh. Jack feels really positive on the inside.
Unfortunately for Jack he is not always surrounded by people who appreciate his drama or nice notes. They believe Jack acts “feminine” at times, and that bothers his peers, not to mention some adults around him. Although those beliefs are based on their own stereotypes. It makes them feel uncomfortable. Every time someone says something negative to Jack, the light inside gets a bit dimmer.
Jack is super lucky though. He has a mom who would do anything for him, and she is not scared to stand up, speak up, or support her child. Anyone on the receiving end of the “Mama Bear” knows what that can be like. But Jack’s mom is not always there, and she wants Jack to advocate for himself, which is not always easy to do.
You see...as much as Jack’s mom is incredibly supportive of who he truly is, she and Jack find that some adults are not. Instead of changing the way schools work with kids who do not seem to fit in...instead of creating an environment that accepts students for who they are...many adults around Jack, those inside his school and out, want Jack to change. It doesn’t matter if he is in class...or helping his mom pick out blouses at the department store.
That’s not very fair to Jack...
We have kids in every city and town who do not feel as though they fit in. At some point they are going to leave where they grew up feeling as though the adults in their school, not only didn’t care, but wanted them to change who they are so they could fit in better. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine not being who you are because it makes other people uncomfortable?
Sadly, the story of Jack is complicated. Although he doesn’t complain to his teachers, when issues do arise, he is told to toughen up or that his perception is off. To be honest, it’s not that Jack isn’t tough enough to handle some pressure, he just wishes more adults around him cared enough to intervene from time to time. He wishes that the adults around him would share stories that focused on more than stereotypes of what boys should be like, and how girls should act.
Jack should not leave his hometown thinking it was only his mother who cared about who he is. There should be more than one or two educators in Jack’s life who show him they care. School may be about achievement but it’s also about fostering growth and teaching students about diversity. Not just for Jack, but for all the kids who are like Jack in our schools.
As our society changes more and more adults in schools are standing up and supporting students who do not always fit in. They are using literature that depicts the lives of their students, and they have group discussions around tough topics. Many adults have zero tolerance for name calling.
Clearly, there will always be people who are not accepting, it’s just upsetting that those people sometimes work in schools as principals and teachers. No matter our personal opinions, schools should be about accepting others...not tolerating them. Or worse, they should not be about asking students to change because it makes others uncomfortable.
Boys like Jack could teach us a lot.
Things to keep in mind:
Act Your Gender - Never ask boys to act more like boys, or girls to act more like girls. It’s fairly ignorant. It’s who they are and if you don’t like it, get over yourself and move on. Do you think they like getting picked on by peers and adults? Offer a helping hand instead of a discouraging one.
Teach Diversity - Make sure the books in your class are well-rounded and focus on diversity. It doesn’t matter if it focuses on color, size, gender, sexual orientation or diverse families, use books that depict the lives of the students in your class. Anything else is unacceptable.
Foster Acceptance - Over the years “Tolerance” has been an official character education word in schools. Change it. No one wants to be tolerated. They want to be accepted.
Say the word “Gay” - And I’m not talking in a derogatory way. Use the word gay in the way that it is meant to be used in our modern society. Saying it out loud doesn’t mean you’re suddenly going to become gay. It means that you foster acceptance in your home and workplace.
Don’t ignore tough conversations - Being progressive is difficult. If you don’t correct students when they make derogatory statements, who will?
Let’s do it for Jack, and all the students like him who need us.
Connect with Peter on Twitter.
Peter is the author of Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students (Corwin Press).
Please visit the Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) for great resources to use in your classroom or school.
The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.