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One Size Does Not Fit All
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One Size Does Not Fit All

By Adriana Murphy

Head of Middle School  •  Friends Community School

 

I remember the first time I realized I was “other.” I was probably five, maybe six. My neighborhood was chock-full of kids, including several teenagers I idolized from a distance. Dan Rocco was one of them. He had a lime green BMX bike with white wheels and thick white spokes and NONE of those frilly thingies coming out of the handle bars. There was also no banana seat. IT. WAS. RAD.
 
My bike, training wheels and all, was pink and had those hideous streamers on the handlebars. My mom thought I would should like it. After all, that’s what all her Nicaraguan friends’ daughters were riding. Never mind that I had hitherto rejected every attempt to bring anything pink within 10 feet of my body. I hated it and couldn’t wait to get the training wheels off. I also couldn’t care less about what those Nicaraguan girls were riding. Even at a young age, it felt like a game of “Who’s the Real Nicaraguan?” when I was around them. I felt like I wasn’t Nicaraguan enough because I wasn’t born there, though my family and I spent every other summer there visiting my mom’s relatives. Meanwhile, I spoke Spanish, gobbled up gallo pinto every Sunday morning, and chased chickens (none were ever harmed!) in Estelí while they watched football and went to cotillion. I wasn’t Nicaraguan enough to be Hispanic but too Hispanic to be white, at least according to my white friends who found the food I ate strange and could never understand why I introduced myself with a hug and a kiss.
 
Meanwhile, I just wanted the stinkin’ BMX bike. I never got it. Instead, when it was time for a bigger bike I got a red one with a banana seat, and hideous red and yellow streamers, that I immediately cut off. It was a compromise. I did not get the over-the-top, stereotypical boys bike, but I did not have to endure another stereotypical girls bike either. I got something the gender bending Ronald McDonald would ride to work. I don’t think my parents had any idea at the time, but I laugh about it now.


I share this because we live in a world that wants desperately to categorize us. So often, we are forced to check off boxes about ourselves as if we neatly fit into one or the other. The reality, of course, is that we are more likely to find ourselves along multiple spectrums that comprise our identity. The ways in which these spectrums intersect can change based on our environment, age, and understanding. This concept has been researched at length by Dr. Jennifer Bryan (http://teamfinchconsultants.com/whos-who/), a renown gender and sexuality expert who also presented at this year’s Association of Independent Maryland Schools’ Making Schools Safe Conference, an event I have helped organize for the last six years. The implication for schools is that we cannot see the various components of students’ identities in isolation. For example, a student’s gender expression (how the student chooses to display gender in public) is influenced by the student’s religion, race, and gender identity (how the student feels about gender on the inside). For me, the task of getting a bike was rife with the interconnectedness of race, ethnicity, gender, and class (my mother’s friends were also hoighty-toighty); it was not simply about wanting to get a stereotypically boys bike. It was about being all of me.


Even the most well-intentioned teachers and schools tend to discuss identity as a series of individual spectrums. Consider just a couple identity spectrums—masculine/feminine, atheist/person of faith(s), able-bodied/non-able-bodied, etc.—and where one might fall along the line. For me, I’d land somewhere in the middle on the Yankee/Hispanic spectrum and definitely closer to gay on the gay/straight spectrum. Still, it’s the composite of all these spectrums and how they influence one another that makes me who I am.


As educators, it’s important we recognize the differences between where students plot themselves along the spectrums and where the rest of the world might plot them. In a 2009 GLSEN study (www.glsen.org/sites/ default/files/Harsh%20Realities.pdf) about the experiences of transgender youth, researchers found that 87% of transgender youth face verbal harassment because of how they choose to express their gender. The study also pointed out that the more transgender students discussed topics of gender and sexuality diversity, “the more likely they were to feel like a part of their school community.”  Taking a lesson from the GLSEN study, giving students opportunities to talk about who they are and might want to be is essential to building a community where kids can be their authentic selves—a tenet central to so many of our schools.
 
As for me, I think it’s time to go bike shopping again!


In Our Schools

 
•  Baby steps. Consider what each end of the various identity spectrums might be while keeping in mind what is dominant and non-dominant in our culture.


•  Dig deeper. Have students plot themselves along various spectrums according to how they see themselves, and then again with a different colored pen, according to how others see them. Ask them to note any differences and why.


 

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