My 12-year-old son has reached the age where he finds his parents (mostly me) acutely embarrassing, but we still function for him as people whose opinions and reassurances matter a lot. For example, he really wants me to walk him to the bus stop every morning, but within the sight line of his fellow bus riders I know I need to avoid breaking into song or hugging him or doing any of the other nerdy, awkward, motherly things I might feel compelled to do.
I love these walks because he talks to me. He’s never been particularly voluble, but there’s something about our shoulder-to-shoulder forward motion that opens him up.
Last September, he talked a lot about new classmates, some of whom were turning into friends. One of these friends, Bryce*, had started texting him memes and jokes they were enjoying.
“Which class do you have with him?” I asked.
“Bryce is a ‘she,’ Mom,” he told me. “Actually, Bryce was born a ‘he’ but she’s trans,” he added. “She’s in English with me and we’re doing an iMovie project together. We’re learning about propaganda.”
There’s a lot in K-12 education that feels like it hasn’t changed a bit in the past 50 years. My husband and I talk with our kids about our own experiences in school and often comment that our schools didn’t function all that differently than our kids’ elementary and middle schools. In one area, though, we agree there’s been remarkable change, and that’s in how gender and sexual orientation show up in many schools today.
I was a seventh grader in 1981. I didn’t know anyone who was trans—or at least, anyone who would talk about it. I was just learning the term “gay,” which was always used as a pejorative in middle school parlance. My school certainly didn’t have an LGBTQ student group, as my son’s school does, and my school district didn’t have a policy in place to protect the rights of transgender students, as our school district recently enacted.
I don’t pretend that all school communities have moved to a place of complete acceptance. Even within my own school district, there is a small but vocal minority of parents who have created an anonymous website advising other parents what to do if they experience “the nightmare” of a child announcing that they are transgender or nonbinary, and taking aim at schools for normalizing gender diversity and inclusion. And I recognize, regretfully, that in some parts of the country, there wouldn’t be a need for parents to create an anonymous website because their schools haven’t yet given them anything to be upset about.
But increasingly, I believe schools are recognizing the importance of students’ physical and emotional safety. We know that real learning can’t happen when students feel threatened and exist in a state of high alert. We know that healthy development of the whole child doesn’t happen when students miss out on respect, acceptance, and self-determination. We know that when any of us is able to lay down the burden of shame, we’re able to take emotional and intellectual risks, form trusting relationships, and deal with challenges and criticism in stride. Doesn’t each of us, and our students, have the right to live and work in such an environment?
I recently attended a three-day Leadership Institute put on by FuelEd Schools, an organization with a mission to develop emotionally-intelligent educators who create relationship-driven schools. My fellow participants included principals, instructional coaches, athletic directors, school social workers, after school program staff, behavior interventionists, and others who lead schools and support students. At Leadership Institute we talked about the importance of educators as secure attachment figures—for each other, in the course of doing the important and emotionally demanding work of teaching—and for students, particularly those who may lack secure attachments at home. And we talked about the way shame can cripple our ability to form secure attachments by triggering self-criticism, depression, and behaviors like conflict avoidance, hostility, perfectionism, externalizing problems, and more.
The FuelEd leaders were careful to point out the difference between “healthy” and “core” shame. Healthy shame may look like regret—we’ve done something that’s hurt someone else, we feel guilty, and we resolve not to do it again. Or it may look like my son’s developmentally appropriate wish that I concentrate every fiber of my being on acting like a “regular” Mom around his peers to avoid embarrassing him. This is worlds apart from core shame, that inner voice which tells us “You aren’t normal and good” over and over again throughout our lives.
There were plenty of “aha” moments during this three-day gathering as the educators in the room realized how core shame was showing up in their students’ attitudes and performance at school—and how their own experiences with shame were affecting their ability to relate to colleagues, families, and students.
This is deep and important work. Three days wasn’t nearly enough time, but a fourth day in a row might have been too much. The challenge, I think, is how to access the internal and external resources we need in order to make this an ongoing effort so that we can create school communities where nobody’s identity is “a nightmare,” where we recognize and empathize that each of us may very well be carrying some kind of core shame, and where we resolve that we will do nothing in our schools to add to that.
In her beautiful TED Talk, the self-described “accidental advocate” Ash Beckham says, “At some point in our lives, we all live in closets, and they may feel safe, or at least safer than what lies on the other side of that door. But I am here to tell you, no matter what your walls are made of, a closet is no place for a person to live.”
I am grateful for and humbled by the actions of educators who are opening up the closets that have existed for so long in schools. When I walk into a school building and see desks in rows (still), bubble sheet assessments (still), and bins to collect homework worksheets (still), I will remember that a quiet and less visible and arguably even more important revolution may well be taking place there.
*Not this student’s real name.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com.