Once upon a time, in my former life, I was a Teaching Artist who helped encourage creativity in young children. That career path was awesome, but it meant a lot of piecing together gigs here and there to make a full-time living. The summer months were different, though. During the summer, I taught theater at a really progressive summer in the suburbs of Philadelphia. The campers in that program were fearless, and were always pushing the limits of art. I had students that were 5 years old, up to 12 or 13 years old, rotating through my classes each day. There was one student, and one set of parents, that stood out to me, though. Still to this day, having known them has impacted the way that I relate to children, and even my own child.
The child was incredibly gregarious and outgoing. She was funny and super silly, and completely earnest in the way that 5-year-olds typically are. For the first week or so of camp, I wasn’t sure whether she was a little boy or a little girl. She had a very short haircut, wore old non-gender specific shorts and tee-shirts (like the majority of the campers), and had a name that could be feminine or masculine. Since all of the littlest kids in the camp traveled in packs to the bathroom, and to classes, anyway, it didn’t really matter whether Alex (not her name) was a boy or a girl. She was a child, and our camp team was there to make sure she had fun.
I finally met Alex’s parents after a camp performance one afternoon, and they confirmed that she was, indeed, a girl, but didn’t really like being called a girl. They had her in counseling, and had concluded that at some point, if she was older, chances were that she’d transition into being a male because that’s who she felt she really was. For the time being, she was 5, so she was still their little girl, but even after she transitioned, she’d still be their child. Both parents spoke in such definitive and loving terms about Alex, that I was inspired that day, that whenever I had a child, I’d be just as accepting and open to understanding my child as they were with theirs.
A couple of weeks later, we had an incident where a young camp counselor tried to get Alex to wear a dress for a skit that the little kids were performing. Alex was humiliated. Tears were streaming down her face, when I went into the dressing room to check on the group. When I found out what was going on, I immediately helped Alex find a blazer and a tie (her choice), and a cool fedora to wear. I talked to her to assure her that it was a mistake, and we were so sorry for trying to make her change, and then we called her parents to let them know what had happened.
It’s about 10 years later now, and I don’t know what happened to Alex. I do know that life is always a little more difficult for children who don’t fit the mold of what other folks think children should fit in. Whenever I think about her (or maybe it’s him now), I always remember, first, the brokenness of her cry when someone tried to make her wear a dress against her will. Then I think about the compassion and love displayed by her parents, and the confidence that Alex had as she was rolling around on the grass, or hopping off the stage doing kicks and other tricks. And I’m reminded that we are all God’s children, that we are perfectly made, and that the things that make us special often have little to do with our gender. I’m grateful for the lessons I learned from Alex and her parents, and have carried them all of these years into my own parenting journey.
This post was inspired by The Underground Girls of Kabul by journalist Jenny Nordberg, who discovers a secret Afghani practice where girls are dressed and raised as boys. Join From Left to Write on September 16th as we discuss The Underground Girls of Kabul. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.