My first class of 4/5-year-olds walked in a little late this morning. As I was pushing myself up from my desk to meet them for circle time, something on my computer monitor caught the attention of a child. He wandered over, exclaiming, “A Power Ranger!” A few more heads went up, and soon I had a small crowd of boys around my desk, with the rest of the class drifting over slowly. I shooed them gently back towards the circle and came to join them.
As I made my way over, a girl looked up at me wonderingly and said, “Maybe you’re a boy.”
I asked my next class to sit boy-girl. (I always cringe to differentiate like that, but in some groups it cuts down on distractions and conflicts, as they’re already socialized to interact more with their own gender.) I watched while they puzzled out the arrangement themselves. Eventually, having settled things, they looked towards me, trying to figure out where in this pattern I fit.
One child–the only one who ever calls me “Mr.” while the other children have no question about addressing me as “Ms.”– looked over at me and asked, “Are you a boy or a girl?”
Usually my students ask this question about storybook characters, or stuffed animals. In return I tend to ask, “Why does it matter?” But I don’t think I’ve ever heard one of my own students ask, right to my face, that question of me.
I can make teachable moments out of storybook characters and stuffed animals, but I can’t be frank about myself. Not here. It’s not safe.
So I grinned at him. “I’m a teacher! I don’t count.” I took my regular place in the circle.
He smiled back briefly, then looked down, pondering. Then he countered, “Are you a boy teacher or a girl teacher?”
Well. Can’t dodge that one.
I suddenly became aware of their teacher, recently departed and possibly still waiting outside, as she does, listening to see if her students need help settling in.
I grinned again, and laughed a little as I asked, “What do YOU think?”
To an adult’s ears, I hoped it sounded charmingly amused that anyone would ask me such a question. To him, I think it sounded like a playful challenge. As it was meant to.
He caught my grin. He repeated, “Are you a boy or a girl?” I repeated my question back to him.
Smile wide, he replied, “–a girl because you talk with a girl voice!”
I laughed softly again, and he settled back into his place as I called the rest of the class, thankfully self-absorbed during these moments, to attention.
My voice, I thought. Not my clothes or my face or the fact that everyone else says “Ms.” and “she” and “her.” A girl voice.
Well, but I like my voice, I thought.
I stopped short. I like my voice? The voice I sometimes can’t stand to hear in recordings because it sounds so much like my abusive mother’s?
Huh. I like my voice. I do.
And I am content with not having given the questioning child an answer.