Teaching is not my passion. I’m good at it; nay, GREAT at it. It’s not my passion and that’s ok. It’s a job that I can imagine going to everyday without grumbling about it.
I lied a little bit. I do grumble, but not for the reasons some might assume. I don’t grumble because of the high stress of ensuring my students are motivated to learn. I don’t grumble because I don’t have assistance with the students who need one-on-one attention. I don’t grumble because I spend most of the day teaching kids how to be human beings instead of teaching the curriculum.
Actually, it’s not even a grumble at all. The feeling is a disillusionment about the system itself; a system that continues to perpetuate whiteness as the norm, heterosexuality as the norm, and the gender binary as the basis for acceptable behaviour. Look at any publicly-funded school board’s mission statement, as well as their policies, and you will assume that the lived experiences of students are valued. They’re not.
As a queer and genderfluid professional, everyday I am reminded that I am different—but, not different in that “Look at her being awesome in her difference!’ sort of way. I exist in the tunnels of school hallways as an anomaly. I’m not offended when young children ask if I’m a boy or a girl, or tell me that “only boys dress that way.” The students appear to be satisfied with my responses: Eg., “I think I’m a boy AND a girl,” and, “No, I don’t have a husband because I’m a lesbian.” I understand where each child’s frame of reference originates. It originates at home and in the classroom.
The classroom. We live our lives in a classroom—all of us, students, teachers, educational assistants, and volunteers. I live my life in an environment where heterosexuality and middle class values are staggeringly abundant. The assumption that I want to talk about diets and calorie counting, or how much I bid on my house, or how much I put into an RSP are reflective of the above values that pervade staff rooms. Needless to say, I rarely socialize with staff. I just don’t fit in. I have never counted a calorie in my life, I rent the house I live in, and I have never had enough cash to put into an RSP. I am a single queer mother and I’m different.
In the heteronormative space that is the school system, I am glaringly different. And yet, I’m fortunate. I benefit from white privilege, and I know that if I had to, I could pass for straight by just wearing different clothing. You know, because clothing is my ticket to queerdom and my shag haircut gets lets me pass the velvet rope to diversity. (Insert sarcastic half-frown emoji).
“Alright boys and girls, come on in!” exclaims the Grade 3 teacher next to me outside the doors of the north entrance. There you have it, folks! From the moment each child walks onto that playground, they are placed into predetermined categories set by a male-privileged world. It begins there, continues into curriculum design and implementation, and ends as they head home at the dismissal bell.
Visual displays, books, vocabulary word walls, and methodologies ensure that students know that, 1) White people make up the majority of the private and public spaces, 2) Heterosexuality is normal, 3) Black folks and indigenous peoples don’t exist, and 4) The gender binary dictates what children get to say and do. I’m not exaggerating! I have not seen a chapter book, picture book, or online text in a classroom that shows a queer person or non-heterosexual partnership. I have glanced at classroom libraries in various rooms and can estimate that maybe two percent of the books feature a person of colour as the main character in a book of fiction. The textbooks are slightly more representative of the actual population, but ‘slightly’ doesn’t really give that Anishnaabe student a clue that their life matters.
I have the privilege of having a job. I am grateful to be making more than I did when I was on social assistance for a chronic disability. I am an occasional teacher who has access to experiencing various elementary school environments across Hamilton. I’m invisible as a concept. I’m extremely visible in comparison to the permanent teachers currently populating these schools. But, I am invisible. My queerness is not normalized whatsoever inside the concrete, or on the paper and walls of this institution. Black people are not represented in the higher echelons of administration, and Grade 1 teachers are still having their students colour drawings of totem poles and calling it indigenous education.
I had the privilege of acquiring a long-term position from September 2016 to June of 2017. During Black History Month, I was disgusted to find that the school I was teaching at did absolutely NOTHING to commemorate—never mind celebrate—the lived experiences, innovations, and achievements of Black folks. The shock that trembled throughout by body and soul crushed my once-held assumptions that even the smallest attempt at lifting up people of colour in white-dominated spaces was at least something.
During the “Wear Pink” campaign, there was not a mention of why this campaign started. Not once have I heard a principal, teacher, or guest speaker discuss how notions of gender and the fear of femininity are pervasive in schools. The focus was on bullying as a topic to be addressed. While, that isn’t a bad thing, the actual cause of LGBTQ2SI hate has never been addressed; at least not in my experience in schools. What are they so afraid of? Why aren’t they talking about any of it? Why hasn’t one professional in these schools opened their mouths and told the truth?
I tell the truth in my teaching practices. I’m not always the most proficient feminist in my own social circles, but I have spent many years ensuring that I acknowledge the intersections of race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, and other social categories that create hierarchies in society. It’s not difficult to infuse that into teaching the curriculum. Of course, the curriculum limits the range of strategies I can use, but it’s a start! I refuse to read aloud one more story about a white middle class heterosexual intact family whose main character got teased once for wearing dirty socks.
I am the queer teacher. I am the “rebel” who showed up to their interview with the sides of their head shaved and in a neck-tie. The only reason I don’t fit in is because schools in Hamilton are filled with straight white adults teaching in straight white contexts, and assuming straightness and whiteness are the norm.
Where does this leave students? Well, the white, heterosexual, and gender-conforming students are doing fine. Those with learning disabilities and suffering from a lack of nutrition will be noticed and accommodated for eventually. Students will continue to assume that boys and girls are distinct categories wherein they learn to adapt. People of colour—especially Black folks and indigenous people—will learn that the only way to survive and achieve is to be more white. And finally, those students who already know that they are sexually different from what is being proscribed will feel confused and most likely bury their thoughts and feelings.
There’s nothing to be proud of if you are a child in the elementary school system right now, unless it’s because you finished your math worksheet or met your reading goals. Their teachers are determined to get those standardized reading assessment scores up, even at the risk of that student reading texts that have nothing to do with them.
Bullying isn’t always the overt words and violent actions that make a person want to stay at home from school everyday. Bullying, firstly, comes in the form of otherness, created by the straight white men who create and perpetuate a system that favours only those who are like them.
To my queer community: Please continue to write books, poetry, music, scripts, comics, etc. Kids need to read them. I’ll do my best to make sure they have access to your work. If I disappoint you by working within an institution that oppresses people of colour and those out of the assumed gender and sexual binary, I cannot be sorry. I decided long ago that I need to try to change the system from within rather than from without. I hope I can continue to stay woke and tell more truths in the coming school year. Love to all. Xo