Teacher Tom: Real Courage

Ian was a three-year-old with an older sister named Eleanor who he adored. One day he arrived at school wearing one of his sister’s dresses.

Even as young as that, he stepped through the door self-consciously. Maybe someone at home, possibly even his more world-wise sister, had cautioned him that he might be teased. It’s also likely that he already knew, even without the explicit words of others, that what he was doing, being a boy wearing a dress, wasn’t likely to go unnoticed. Gender stereotypes are learned early and he knew this was going against type.

As he stood in the doorway, waiting for comments, for questions, for ridicule, the other children pushed past him, taking no notice. He made eye contact with me. I greeted him as I did every day, “Good morning, Ian. I’m happy to see you.”

He was a boy who often wore costumes, both from home and from our racks of dress up clothing, doing so unabashedly, embodying the character he felt suitable for a gorilla or a tiger or a bunny. This was different: in wearing this dress he was being courageous. He was courageous in the way real courage manifests, not like the comic-book bravado of a superhero, but rather the sweaty-browed, nervous, self-doubt that generally accompanies any act of genuine courage. This was not make believe, but rather real life, and in real life one might get hurt. I don’t know if he was thinking these thoughts, but I’m certain he was feeling them.

As he stepped into the room, he remained against the wall, eyes still darting about, waiting, I thought, for the worst. Then his older sister Eleanor arrived, passing through the door boldly, catching Ian’s arm, saying, “Come on.” She was too old for preschool, but we always welcomed siblings to stay and play a bit, especially elementary school aged ones whose days were too full of sitting at desks. As they made their way to the art table, the glamour of the older child pulled several kids along in their wake. They swarmed together through the room. Ian’s self-consciousness seemed to disappear as they explored the materials they found on the art table.

Eleanor was wearing a t-shirt and jeans. Indeed, as I reflected, I realized that I’d never seen her in a dress, yet I’d not once considered that she was “dressed as a boy.” That’s what patriarchy does. We value “maleness” so there is no implied shame. Indeed, we tend to see girls clad like Eleanor as strong and independent, whereas a boy in a dress connotes weakness.

By the time his mother arrived, Ian was fully engaged in his self-selected pursuit, his initial reticence no longer evident. Out of the children’s earshot, she said, “I suppose you noticed what Ian is wearing. He wants you to ask him if he’s a girl.”

I couldn’t do that, exactly. I wasn’t going to ask a loaded question like that, so later, when I had a chance to speak with him alone, I said, “Your mom thinks you want me to ask you if you’re a girl.”

“I’m not a girl,” he said, “I’m a mommy and I’m going to give my babies milk from my breasts.” Then, to prove his point, he chose a doll and held it to his chest.

“That’s something that a lot of mommies do,” I said. As we sat together, I noted that I’d never seen his mother in a dress either, nor was she currently a breast-feeding parent. These were constructs, dresses and mommies and feeding babies, that he had picked up from our world. None of us escape them, except with conscious, courageous effort, which is, I realized, exactly what this three-year-old was doing.

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