Last week I was working with a group of high school seniors and I made them brainstorm on a teacher, or teachers, who had made a positive impact on their lives prior to high school. The “prior to high school” caveat was mainly because they were all still in high school and I wanted them to think back. We talked about what makes a good teacher and eventually settled on the answer, “it’s the little things.” Then I made them look up an email address or, if needed, a physical address of a teacher they remembered had made an impact on them though “the little things.” We wrote letters, by hand and on computers, thanking those teachers for what they’d done, detailing that “little thing,” and updating them on where their former students were now and where they hoped to go in the future.
They told me I should do it, too, so I sat there contemplating the question. I’d certainly had some great teachers and I’d had some really awful teachers. Most of the good teachers were in high school and college and certainly not all of my “teachers” have been in schools. But middle school had a dearth of teachers I felt like cared at all.
I got caught up in the rest of the day and didn’t really plan to follow through with sending off a letter and forgot about it until I got home and turned on my computer. I had a Facebook friend request from somebody who had bullied me mercilessly in middle school. I couldn’t figure out why she’d want to be friends; this was a girl who scribbled “fag” all over my backpack and was such a “nice girl” in front of the teachers that, when she told one of them I’d copied her test rather than the other way around, I failed and almost didn’t pass math. And how had she found me? I’d changed my name since middle school and there was no way she should have known to look me up. I considered, strongly considered, sending her a nastily worded message about how bad she’d made my life.
It got me thinking again about those teachers who hadn’t done the right thing and played into the idea that bullies have low self-esteem and let them get away with murder. Then I remembered an incident on the playground before school; this person was bullying me and my science teacher came up to us and completely diffused the situation. I started thinking about that letter I hadn’t written.
I searched out my middle school’s website just to see if she happened to still work there. She did. I grabbed the letter format I’d made my high schoolers use and started to write. Almost immediately I realized that I’d either have to come out as transgender to this teacher or use only my legal name and an old email address to avoid coming out.
I came out to her; I figured I lost nothing if she never responded, or thought it was spam, or didn’t care, or just never saw the email. I explained why I was writing, thanked her for standing up to a bully for me that one morning (the little things!), let her know where I’d gone to undergrad and where I was in grad school, and signed off.
Less than fifteen minutes later she sent me a friend request on Facebook.
Okay, so much for her never seeing it, or not responding, or not remembering who I was.
So I did what I do. Sent her a Facebook message. “That was an awkwardly fast response to a completely random email.” She responded that she’d been avoiding grading. And we started chatting. She had family in Maine and Boston, relatives associated with Unitarian Universalist Churches.
Then she said, “love the new look.” I made some sarcastic comment about moving quickly from Dykesville to Tranny Town after high school but inside I was saying, “Oh, thank you, God.” She was fine with it; it was a nonissue.
I don’t know why it mattered. This wasn’t somebody I’d even really thought of since I left middle school and had she never responded to my email I wouldn’t have really thought about it. And if there HAD been some issue with it then, hey, what did it matter? She was my science teacher, for one year, thirteen years ago. I’m pretty sure in the prioritized list of “people who need to accept my gender identity” that’s… pretty low.
I’m at the point in my life where I’m not closeted to anybody I’ve met in the past five years and anybody from before that who I’m friends with in any capacity online. I’m out to my parents and my siblings and a couple high school teachers who I’ve stayed in contact with. But because Facebook didn’t become public until after I left high school I never ended up friends with almost anybody I went to school with. Anybody who tries to seek me out now won’t find me under my legal name.
Therefore anybody I contact from before I transitioned I have to make that choice with.
Should I come out to you?
Are you safe?
Does it matter?
Sometimes the conversation is great. This teacher was wonderful about it. Last time I came out to a former teacher she was… less okay with it. She’s come around, and we’re fine now but her initial reaction hurt. A few people never questioned me when I changed my name online while others asked about it and then never brought it up again.
But it will always be the little things that make the biggest impact.
“Love the new look.”